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Success by Steering Committee

Most of us have been (or should have been) instructed to avoid using clichés in our writing. These overstated phrases and expressions add little value, and often only increase sentence length. We should also avoid clichés in our thinking, for what we think can often influence how we act.

Consider, for example, “death by committee.” This cliché has greatly — and negatively — skewed views on the benefits of committees in managing projects. Sure, sometimes committee members have difficulty agreeing with one another, which can lead to delays and other issues. In most cases, though, an individual can’t possibly oversee all aspects of a project, or represent all interests in an organization. Committees are vital for project success — and arguably the most important project committee is the steering committee.

What Exactly is a Steering Committee?

It is a group of high-level stakeholders that provides strategic direction for a project, and supports the project manager. Ideally, the group increases the chances for project success by closely aligning project goals to organizational goals. However, it is important to point out that the group’s top priority is project success.

The committee should represent the different departments and agencies affected by the project, but remain relatively small in size, chaired by someone who is not an executive sponsor of the project (in order to avoid conflicts of interest). While the project manager should serve on the steering committee, they should not participate in decision-making; the project manager’s role is to update members on the project’s progress, areas of concern, current issues, and options for addressing these issues.

Overall, the main responsibilities of a steering committee include:

  1. Approving the Project Charter
  2. Resolving conflicts between stakeholder groups
  3. Monitoring project progress against the project management plan
  4. Fostering positive communicating about the project within the organization
  5. Addressing external threats and issues emerging outside of the project that could impact it
  6. Reviewing and approving changes made to the project resource plan, scope, schedules, cost estimates, etc.

What Are the Pros and Cons of Utilizing a Steering Committee?

A group of executive stakeholders providing strategic direction should benefit any project. Because steering committee members are organizational decision-makers, they have the access and credibility to address tough issues that can put the project at a risk, and have the best opportunities to negotiate positive outcomes. In addition, steering committees can engage executive management, and make sure the project meshes with executive management’s vision, mission, and long-range strategic plan. Steering committees can empower project managers, and ensure that all departments and agencies are on the same page in regards to project status, goals, and expectations. In a 2009 article in Project Management Journal, authors Thomas G. Lechler and Martin Cohen concluded that steering committees are important to implementing and maintaining project management standards on an operational level — not only do steering committees directly support project success, they are instrumental in deriving value from an organization's investments in its project management system.

A steering committee is only as effective as it’s allowed to be. A poorly structured steering committee that lacks formal authority, clear roles, and clear responsibilities can impede the success of a project by being slow to respond to project issues. A proactive project manager can help the organization avoid this major pitfall by helping develop project documents, such as the governance document or project plan that clearly define the steering committee structure, roles, responsibilities and authority.

Steer Toward Success!

Steering committees can benefit your organization and its major projects. Yet understanding the roles and responsibilities — and pros and cons — is only a preliminary step in creating a steering committee. Need some advice on how to organize a steering committee? Want to learn more about steering committee best practices? Contact me. Together, we can steer your project toward success.

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