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Project Governance: Establishing an Effective Steering Committee

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Within the project management community, the concept of governance is seen as a fundamental project control, which is easy to grasp in principle. But in reality, it’s a different matter. Getting the governance piece right requires insight and at times a few honest conversations about roles and responsibilities. If those conversations aren’t happenWorking with Senior Stakeholders on Projectsing, the project may end up with an ineffective escalation and decision-making process.

Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon that I see projects with one of the following dysfunctions in the governance area:

  • It’s unclear to the project manager who the sponsor is.
  • The project’s steering committee doesn’t have a defined set of members.
  • The working group meeting and the steering committee meetings are the same.
  • The steering committee meets once every quarter to discuss all of the department’s projects at the same time, thereby providing very little attention to each project.
  • The steering committee members favour positive news and inadvertently discourage the project manager from presenting the real risks and issues of the project.

Creating a smooth escalation and governance process

For a strategic project to progress as swiftly as possible and overcome significant obstacles, the escalation and governance process must work effectively from the point of project initiation. As a starting point, a dedicated sponsor must be identified so that he or she can appoint people with the right level of experience and authority to sit on the steering committee.

In addition to the executive sponsor, the steering committee should consist of senior suppliers and senior users. The senior suppliers represent those responsible for producing the project’s end products and services, whereas senior users represent the various groups who will be using the products and who are responsible for providing the requirements.

The steering committee shouldn’t have too many members – 5 is a good number to aim for – and those who are selected must be real decision-makers who can actively help move the project forward. There is little point of inviting people to the steering committee if their only need is to be kept informed.

On the other hand, it can be ingenious to invite allies as well as opponents to join the board. Sceptical stakeholders can be a blessing in disguise because they influence the group to address concerns. The result can be a better outcome and reduced opposition from the community later on.

To establish an effective governance process, the project manager should look for an answer to the following questions:

  • Who is the ultimate decision-maker of the project?Good Governance on Projects
  • Who do I escalate to and in which situations?
  • How can I help decision-makers make prompt, informed and consistent decisions?
  • Who influences the decision-makers?
  • Who sits on the steering committee? What are their roles?
  • How frequently does the steering committee meet and what does it discuss?
  • What is my role as a project manager during the steering committee meetings?
  • Who comprises the working group and how frequently does it meet?
  • What is the link between the working group and the steering committee?

Taking ownership of the governance process

Good project managers don’t wait for the project sponsor to create an active and engaged steering group. Sponsors of strategic projects are executives with busy schedules who often give priority to the day job. Although the executive sponsor is the ultimate decision-maker, it doesn’t mean that they are accustomed to steering a change programme and that they understand the importance of their role.

How do project managers mitigate this risk?

By spending time with the sponsor upfront setting expectations and clarifying the kind of strategic direction and decision-making that is required. They will also ensure that each steering committee and working group member understands their specific responsibilities and that they are fully bought into the project.

An excellent project manager, in other words, is someone who actively communicates with senior stakeholders, and who helps them to fulfil their role on the project. They may also organise the practicalities of summoning the steering committee and may even seek to chair it. In doing so, the project manager does not overstep their boundary and does not take on the role of the sponsor. Rather than making executive decisions – which is the steering committee members’ responsibility – the project manager takes ownership of the process, supporting the sponsor and the other members as best as they can.

With that attitude, the project manager can comfortably steer the executive meeting because they have the trust and buy-in from the committee members and because they sing from the same hymn sheet as the sponsor. A close relationship between PM and sponsor is required for the project manager to be empowered in this way,

On one of the strategic projects I was leading it was my role to chair the weekly working group meeting as I also organised and set the agenda for the monthly steering committee. The working group meeting took place every week at the same time and consisted of around ten team members and stakeholders. During this meeting, we would look at requirements, get input from subject matter experts, and make key decisions regarding the product. This was the heartbeat of the project, which dictated in detail what we were going to develop on this high profile and complex project.

To communicate effectively and with clarity to the steering committee

The steering committee, on the other hand, included some of the same stakeholders as the working group meeting, but had a very different focus. This was not the place for detailed discussions of the requirements or the solution, but a place where progress, strategic risks, issues, and decisions were discussed. My role as the project manager was to ensure that the appropriate topics were presented to the steering board for discussion and that the board would understand the urgency of certain decisions. As I wasn’t the subject matter expert, I was not part of the decision-making body.

But I took full ownership of the process, from having pre-meetings with the sponsor, drafting the agenda, and preparing the slides, to facilitating the meeting and writing up minutes. During the session itself, I did my best to communicate with clarity and try not to overload senior executives with unnecessary detail.

To communicate effectively and with clarity, I would recommend that project managers produce a steering committee presentation with the following information:

  • Provide an update and a RAG status (Red/Amber/Green) for the overall project.Project Management and Governance
  • Provide a timeline with major phases and milestones and visually illustrate where the project is.
  • Showcase achievements since the last meeting (preferably in a very tangible way) and highlight the team’s good work.
  • Address any actions from past steering committee meetings.
  • Inform the committee about the upcoming milestones of the project.
  • Provide an overview and discussion around the project’s top 10 risks and issues.
  • Clarify which decisions the steering committee needs to take (if any) and provide the background information for it to do so.
  • Provide an overview of proposed scope changes for approval (if any) and their impact.
  • Provide a financial overview in the form of actual spend compared with the budget as well as remaining spend compared with the estimate to completion.

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About Susanne Madsen

Susanne Madsen
Susanne Madsen is an internationally recognised project leadership coach, trainer and consultant. She is the author of The Project Management Coaching Workbook and The Power of Project Leadership (Jan 2015).

Prior to setting up her own business, she worked for 17 years in the corporate sector leading large change programmes of up to $30 million for organisations such as Standard Bank, Citigroup and JPMorgan Chase. She is a fully qualified Corporate and Executive coach and a member of the Association for Project Management (APM).

Susanne specialises in helping managers improve their leadership skills so that they can gain control of their projects and fast-track their career. She does this through a combination of training, coaching, mentoring and consulting.

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