20 September 2011

Avoid usual mistakes in setting up your Steering Committee

Last week I had an interesting discussion at a project I am working with for a leading European energy company. The project involves the development of strategic tool for the company's smart grid roll-out, and is key part of the future development of the company. The project manager felt that the Steering Committee that had been set up for the project was not providing him with any value and was taking away valuable time from him and other key project members. This was an interesting statement, as I had been told that many members of the SteerCo were also unhappy. Their complaints were centered round the reasons for their participation, the information they were provided, and the structure of the meetings themselves.

This got me thinking about steering committees and how these should be set up and used optimally. In this blog-spot I will focus on how an optimal steering committee should be set up. In later blog-spots I will talk about how to best use a SteerCo during the project itself and how a project can ensure that its goals are met through the SteerCo.


My assumption is that you are the sponsor or the project manager of a complex project and are in the process of setting it up. This means that you have carried out all the other steps required for a successful start-up of a complex project ( you have a well-structured understanding of the reasons why the project is required, you have defined clear goals and deliverables, you have set up a structured approach that includes key activities, dependencies, and milestones, and you have formed the best  (available) team for carrying out the project.

You are now in a situation where you believe that you need to set up the Steering Committee. Either because somebody has told you to do so, or because you believe that "all" projects have such an entity. However, you also have some doubts as you do not really have a good idea what the role of the Steering Committee will be or who you should put in it.

I have seen very many situations where a project either has a SteerCo that is too big or consists of too senior people (misuse of resources). Projects run by external consultants often have this, as for them having a Steering Committee consisting of many senior executives is an excellent marketing tool. I have also seen many projects that either did not really need a SteerCo or had a SteerCo with the wrong participants. Thinking carefully about your SteerCo is therefore well worth your time.

The first step in this process is to get a clear understanding of why you want a SteerCo. Essentially there are four reasons for a complex project to have a SteerCo (sometimes overlapping):
1.    Decision-making - The SteerCo accepts the final results of the project, makes go/no go decisions for the implementation of project recommendations, and makes decisions during the project that are relevant for the overall direction that the project takes
2.    Ensuring support - The SteerCo is used to organize staff for the project, to provide ad-hoc access to staff in the organization and to get buy-in for the final results of the project
3.    Provide knowledge - The SteerCo is intended to primarily provide knowledge and experience to the project-team
4.    Control quality and progress - The SteerCo is a group of people ensuring that everything's OK with the project at a higher level than the Project Manager

You should also keep in mind that a SteerCo is often not the only solution that will help you deal with your needs. In my experience, the need to have a Steering Committee to make decisions is very often over-rated. If the only decision that needs to be made is at the end, then seeing the management team once at the end of the project can be sufficient. Only if there is an ongoing stream of relative complex decisions to be made, do you need a traditional Steering Committee that meets regularly during the whole project. Any smaller / less complex decisions can be made by the sponsor of the project.

The idea that having a Steering Committee will ensure support for the project is based on an assumption that being the SteerCo will result in key people having more knowledge of the project, and that they will be "invested"  in the process and conclusions developed by the project. Hopefully this then translates into help getting access to staff and buy-in for the results of the project. A key point to keep in mind is that finding staff is an activity that only takes place at the start of the project, and can therefore not be a reason for keeping an ongoing SteerCo. Buy-in for the need for a project and its conclusions and recommendations can also be created (often better and with less use of resources) through a series of one-to-one meetings with key managers.

I have often seen a SteerCo be used to provide knowledge to the project team. If this is the only reason for having a SteerCo I would recommend alternatives such as an expert group or Blue Teams. This enables the project team to make direct use of the real experts instead of management, and also reduces the likelihood that they persons involved will believe that they need to make decisions (which is usually not the case).

The final reason for having a SteerCo is often quality control. This is based on an assumption that the project manager and sponsor cannot do this themselves, and that it requires more senior executives with a broader view of what is key for the overall company. This can be a valid reason if the project is very complex and "steering" is required based on a broad overview of the company. In my experience, the type of discussions that take place in this type of SteerCos is very similar to the SteerCos making decisions

Based on this overview you can conclude that a Steering Committee is only required when a project required senior-level "steering" as an ongoing process during the project. The "steering" provided in these situations can be seen as a mixture of "quality-control" and ongoing decision-making. All other reasons for having a SteerCo can usually be provided by other means that place lower time-demands on both executives as well as project-team members.

The final question is then who you should put in your SteerCo. The first rule is to keep the group as small as possible (less use of resources, easier logistics for planning meetings, easier discussions, etc). The second rule is to find the lowest-ranking people that can make the decisions that are needed. A rule of thumb that has served me well is to discuss participation high in the organization, and clearly present the type of decisions that are likely to be made. The senior executive can then chose the person that he/she feels comfortable allowing to take the relevant decisions.