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What Does the Steering Committee Do?

Although in practice the role of the Steering Committee is complex, two guiding principles by which it should function are simple:

  • Give Strategic Direction
  • Support the Project/Programme Manager

Thus, a Steering Committee typically comprises senior managers who have a vested interest in the delivery and/or outcome of the project/programme.

We take a look at both of those guiding principles in turn.

Give Strategic Direction

Normally, the members of a Steering Committee are selected because they are in such positions in an organisation that the ability and authority to make strategic decisions is a natural assumption, and this is usually the case.

However, it must also be recognised that regardless of the make-up of the Steering Committee, or the position of its members in an organisation, it is not intended to be a “voting democracy”. In reality a Steering Committee often exists as a group of individuals who should share a common purpose but whose opinions and agendas may not always be aligned.  It is therefore essential that chairing of the Committee should be vested in an individual with the actual authority and empowerment to make such decisions as may be necessary in the best interests of the organisation and the project/programme.  Therefore, the chairing of the Steering Committee is most often vested in the Project/Programme Sponsor who should have been selected for those very qualities.  This is of the greatest importance because from time-to-time the Sponsor as chair of the Steering Committee will be required to make decisions that run counter to the view of some (or even all) of the other Steering Committee members.

On major projects and particularly programmes of interrelated projects, a Steering Committee will be faced with many significant decisions, most notably with regard to the application of organisational assets; for example, people, money, accommodation and other facilities.  Such decisions will not be equally significant nor will they be equally spaced throughout the project/programme.  Indeed, on major programmes, those decisions may be separated by many months.

A Steering Committee will usually also need to make decisions at key Governance points during the project/programme lifetime.  In theory, those decisions may be as significant as the premature closure of the project/programme but in practice such a decision is often reserved to the corporate management body of the organisation.  Nevertheless, the Steering Committee will be the forum for discussion of the topic and will be responsible for making any necessary recommendations to corporate management.  Obviously, decisions of that nature and others relating to ad-hoc “crisis” situations cannot be pre-planned but decisions related to release of funding, progression from one phase of a Project/Programme to the next, acceptance of major deliverables etc. could and should be scheduled in advance.  The use of a milestone plan to indicate when those Steering Committee meetings should be held would act as a communication tool and as an aide-memoire to Committee members.  The master schedule of the project/programme should also reflect those dates to ensure that focus is maintained on the strategic nature of the project/programme.

Steering CommitteeWith pre-scheduled meetings focussed on the strategic role of the Steering Committee it is no longer necessary for the “traditional” monthly meeting to be held.

Historically, monthly Steering Committee meetings have been the forum where the Project/Programme Manager presented a progress report but that can be effected more efficiently through email without the demand on time (and the associated cost and non-productiveness) of senior managers and the Project/Programme Manager.  This best-practice approach has been proven to work extremely well when it is supported by an appropriate process for the escalation of Out-of-Tolerance issues (Tolerance – the flexibility granted to the Project/Programme manager for +/- variations from targets).

To properly address Steering Committee members’ need for regular, timely information, a monthly report should be more than just a snapshot of the previous month’s performance against known targets but should also report on identified key risks that had occurred together with major changes approved, particularly where those had led to changes to performance-measurement baselines.  Additionally, the monthly report should feature a forecast of “highlights” anticipated in the month to come (proposed completions, benefits delivery, transitions to operations, handovers to customers etc.) together with key identified risks for the period.

On major projects/programmes with estimated durations (typically) longer than two years, the monthly report could also feature a three-month rolling forecast which would be updated month by month to provide a meaningful future reference for Steering Committee members.

The reporting process would need to include a defined “acceptance period” (usually 3 working days after transmission of report) for Steering Committee members to raise any queries they might have with the Project/Programme Manager.  After that period has elapsed, it would be assumed (by default) that the report was accepted by all members of the group.

This “management by exception” approach is a feature of best practice project/programme methodologies and of itself is an indication of Steering Committee support for the Project/Programme Manager.

Support the Project/Programme Manager

The more significant a Project/Programme is to an organisation, the more vital it is that the Steering Committee actively supports the Project/Programme Manager, but paradoxically, it is this role which is most often misunderstood or simply overlooked in many organisations.

Too often, because of the importance of a project/programme, the Steering Committee seeks a degree of control which should reside in the hands of the Project/Programme Manager with the result that “micro-management” occurs, sometimes manifested through the “monthly meeting”.

It is a truism that the energies of Steering Committee members are better spent providing active support to the Project/Programme Manager to ensure that resources are made available as required, especially in a “matrix” organisation where key human resources reside within functions and are only “loaned” to projects/programmes.  Steering Committee members in charge of such functions should use their position and influence to help the Project/Programme Manager to overcome the many obstacles that the matrix approach creates, e.g. where a conflict arises between project/programme and functional priorities, it is usually the function that prevails.  It is also not uncommon for resources to be withdrawn or reallocated at short (or nil) notice.

It can be strongly argued that where a project/programme is of major strategic importance to the organisation, key (especially scarce) resources should be withdrawn from the functions and dedicated to the project/program for the duration required.  Such a proposal often meets with considerable resistance which Steering Committee members should seek to overcome if the project/programme is deemed to be of greater significance than the function affected – at least in the short term but perhaps even in the longer term.

The support that should be provided by a Steering Committee and its strategic decision-making responsibilities are obviously much deeper and broader than the scope of this article permits.  Neither does the article touch upon the more detailed role of the Project Sponsor as the “line” manager of the Project/Programme Manager.  However, readers should have gained an insight into some of the key characteristics of an effective Steering Committee as featured in principal project/programme methodologies and which are recognised as best practices applicable in any organisation.

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About John Pelham

John Pelham
John Pelham, an instructor with ESI International, has more than 20 years of project management experience in various fields including retail, banking, IT, and construction.

He has successfully managed projects as diverse as the redevelopment of city-center sites for light industrial and commercial purposes, and the development and networking of software applications. Mr. Pelham has also been involved in the planning, organization, and leadership of international refugee relief missions for a UK-based charity.
Mr. Pelham is a Prince 2 practitioner and a member of the Association for Project Management (APM) and the Project Management Institute (PMI®).

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