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Project Managers and Steering Committees

steering-committeeEverything you need to know about the Steering Committee

What is a steering committee and what does it do?

The steering committee is the most senior decision-making body on a project. Sometimes it’s also called the project board or the steering board. This is the decision-making body that authorizes the project to start and to progress from one phase to the next based on the information that is provided to it by the   project manager. The steering committee also authorizes the closure of the project and, very importantly, provides ad hoc advice on matters that are beyond the project manager’s authority.

The project manager is the person who runs the project on a day-to-day basis and who can make decisions that don’t impact the overall outcome of the project. What this means is that the project manager doesn’t need to involve the steering committee as long as the project is on track, i.e. within budget, on time and forecast to deliver the expected requirements and benefits. But there are many situations in which the project manager does not have the authority to make the ultimate decision and therefore needs to escalate to the steering committee for guidance. Imagine for instance a situation where an issue or a change comes up that may cause the project to either be delivered late or be delivered on time but with a reduced scope or a higher cost. Whereas the project manager can carry out the impact analysis and recommend options, it is the role of the steering committee to make the final decision.

Who sits on the steering committee?

As the steering committee is the project’s ultimate decision-making body, it must consist of those stakeholders who are the real decision-makers. It can be tempting to include too many people on the steering committee because it’s an easy way to keep people informed – and because it’s easier to include someone than having a conversation about why that person should be excluded. If you include too many people, however, it could slow down the project, so it should only include those who are empowered to make decisions on behalf of their function or department. Five members would be a good number to aim for, but the optimal number will depend on the size and the nature of the projects within the organisation.

The most senior member of the steering committee, who has the ultimate say, is the project’s executive sponsor. The sponsor will normally choose the steering committee members in consultation with you, the project manager. In a way you could say that the other members of the steering committee are there to support the executive sponsor in directing the project and making the right decisions.

Your project may have many stakeholders, who you need to keep updated about progress separately, if they are not members of the steering committee. That’s perfectly normal. You can copy them on minutes from meetings or update them in other suitable ways. It’s important that you don’t forget about them even though they aren’t on the steering committee.

What is the role of the project manager?

As the project manager you are not a member of the steering committee as such, although you attend the meetings. The executive sponsor owns the steering committee meetings, but he or she may delegate the practicalities to you. That means that you may end up creating the agenda, ensure that meetings happen on a regular basis (for instance every month), as well as chairing the meetings and writing up the minutes. If the executive sponsor delegates all of these aspects to you, it’s still wise to run the agenda, presentation and meeting minutes past the sponsor before publicizing the information.

If the executive sponsor does not delegate the practical elements of the steering committee meetings to you, your remaining – and ultimate role – is to present the status of the project to the committee members so that they can provide the steer that is required.

How to prepare for the steering committee meeting?

Presenting to the steering committee is one of the few opportunities you have as a project manager to impact the direction of the project, make recommendations and maybe even wow the committee members. It’s therefore important that your PowerPoint presentation is accurate, to the point and asks for the decisions you need.

Before creating the presentation, first ask yourself what you would like the outcome of the meeting to be. Would you like the members to walk away with the feeling that all is well, the project is on track and there is nothing to worry about? Or would you like them to feel a bit uneasy and know that unless they make the decisions you are asking for, the project cannot progress effectively?

Another aspect to consider is that you need to communicate at the right level. What this means is that your steering committee may consist of senior people with limited time. They rely on you to be able to judge which information they need and to what detail. If your project is going well, they are unlikely to want any in-depth information. If your project has run into an issue, however, they’d want you to come prepared with all the detailed information (even if you don’t put it in the slides). They’d want to know why the issue occurred, what you have done to try to resolve it, what the options are going forward, and what the impact or consequences are of each option. If you need them to make a decision, provide them with all the information you have to enable them to do so.

What specific items should the steering committee presentation contain?

In terms of specific content, you can build you presentation up as following:

  1. Minutes and actions from last meeting
  2. Achievements since last meeting (promote your team where you can)
  3. Project metrics (effort vs. cost vs. time)
  4. Financial status (actual spend to date, and estimated remaining spend compared to budget)
  5. Top 10 risks and issues (include actions and owners of each item)
  6. Proposed changes to scope (highlight impact of each scope change)
  7. Roadmap (overview of upcoming milestones on a timeline)
  8. Summary of actions and decision needed from the steering committee
  9. AOB (any other business)

It’s important that your presentation names the real issues – if there are any. Otherwise you won’t come across as trustworthy and the steering committee members won’t have a chance to impact and resolve the issues. Remember that the committee can only be truly effective if you feed it with accurate information and issues that it needs to act upon.

After the meeting, make sure that you write-up brief minutes and distribute them within 24 hours. You don’t have to minute the entire conversation, but make sure you capture actions and decisions with clear ownership and dates against each item.

What are the typical mistakes to watch out for?

There are many pitfalls when it comes to running effective steering committee meetings. I have listed some of them below so that you know what to watch out for.

  • Not having a steering committee – some projects don’t have a dedicated steering committee. They do have senior decision-makers, but they have not been officially named and there isn’t a forum where they meet. The problem is that the project doesn’t have a clear escalation path and a way to effectively steer the project.
  •  Not clarifying each stakeholder’s role on the steering committee – if we don’t know who is playing which role and why each person is on the steering committee, decision-making will be ineffective. You need to know that all stakeholder interests are represented on the committee and that each person knows exactly what is expected of them.
  • Having too many people on the committee – this is the issue we discussed earlier on. If there are too many cooks in the kitchen it may slow down or dilute decision-making. Only involve people who can actively affect the direction of the project. Five is a good number to aim for.
  • Not having regular meetings – steering committee meetings need to be regular to be effective, i.e. once a month. If the project is on track you should still meet, but if necessary you can have a shorter meeting.
  • Cancelling meetings if members are unable to attend – meetings sometimes need to be rescheduled, especially if the executive sponsor can’t make them. But be careful not to cancel or reschedule too many times or sending invites out with too short notice. The project needs a regular heartbeat. If possible, chose the same time to meet every month and send reoccurring invites. If a member can’t attend, ask them to send a deputy instead of cancelling the meeting.
  • Not conveying the true state of project – as a project manager it’s imperative that you convey the true state of the project to the steering committee. Otherwise it won’t be able to help you manage the project. Make it clear what decisions you need from the members and by when. To this effect, always include an overview of risks, issues, changes to scope as well as a financial status.
  • Preparing too detailed a presentation – many project managers think that the more detail they provide the better. Whereas you absolutely need to know the detail if steering committee members ask, it doesn’t mean that you should put it all in the presentation. Knowing which three to five items you really need to draw their attention to, will be one of the best ways for you to prepare.

In summary, the steering committee is a fundamental part of a well-functioning project. The steering committee is there to support the executive sponsor in providing a clear direction to the project and serves as a point of escalation for the project manager. Make sure the meetings happen on a regular basis, that each person knows why they are on the committee and that your presentations clearly highlight the project’s progress and what decisions you need them to make.




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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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