Definition - What is a Steering Committee?
The Steering Committee is a decision-making body within the governance structure that consists of top managers and decision makers who provide, review and monitor strategic direction and policy guidance to a team and other stakeholders. The committee also provides recommendations on different approaches and participates in discussing general strategies and opportunities for planning and implementation.
Many companies have developed specific IT steering committees (ITSC) in order to bring together both IT and business officials in order to make decisions that affect both vital areas. ITSC are often adopted to promote teamwork between the IT teams and direct business teams, in order to support growth and change that align with the overall business mission.
Project Steering Committees
A project steering committee is part of a larger project governance structure. Companies that schedule large projects that require interaction across several departments and involve many stakeholders benefit from a steering company that can manage the team’s progress toward meeting benchmarks and goals. The committee is responsible for analyzing the budget and any changes that affect the original scope of the project. In addition, the committee ensures that all points of view get heard and they manage any conflicts that arise between stakeholders or departments.
Role of the Steering Committee
A steering committee is an advisory group that makes directional decisions on various organizational projects. Its members directly support project managers working toward strategic company directions.
In practice steering committees also do the following:
- Act as an advocate for initiatives and projects across the wider organization
- Set the strategic direction of projects
- Provide advice or direct input on budgeting, including assets (such as people), money, facilities, time, hiring, and marketing
- Establish project goals and scope as well as determine how success will be measured
- Assess and approve or reject project plans and changes to project plans
- Select project managers and experts to support projects
- Prioritize and reprioritize project deliverables
- Monitor project processes and plans
- Resolve conflicts between parties
- Come up with ideas for strategy and problem solving
- Provide expert input on concerns and issues related to projects or the overall business
- Develop policies and governance procedures
- Identify, monitor, and eliminate project and business risks
- Monitor project quality and adjust accordingly
Role of Individual Steering Committee Members
Individual Steering Committee members are not directly responsible for managing project activities, but provide support and guidance for those who do. So, individually, Steering Committee members should:
- Understand the aim, strategy and intended outcomes of the project;
- Appreciate the significance of the project for their own organization and clients;
- Be genuinely interested in the project and the outcomes that are intended;
- Be an advocate for the project by doing what they can to promote its outputs;
- Have a broad understanding of project management issues.
In practice, this means they:
- Ensure the strategy that is planned matches the aim of the project;
- Consider how they will know if the aim of the project has been achieved;
- Review the progress of the project against the milestones set;
- Consider ideas and issues raised;
- Provide guidance to the project team;
- Help balance conflicting priorities and resources;
- Foster positive communication outside of the Committee regarding the project’s progress and outcomes;
- Actively promote the outputs of the project;
- Contribute to the evaluation of the project, both the process of developing and implementing the project, and its actual impact on its intended audience.
One member of the Steering Committee – not a representative of the organization who “owns” the project – should be elected Chair, to ensure that meetings run smoothly and achieve their objectives.
As members are selected based on their individual knowledge and skills that they bring to the Committee, there can be some confusion and conflict in the accountability of members. The first responsibility of members is the achievement of the project’s success, and secondly to their organization. This should be made very clear at the outset. Similarly, members who have expertise in a particular area should avoid taking a narrow view of their responsibility on the Committee – they are on the Committee to contribute to the entire project.
Sometimes it’s useful to prepare a simple role description for members of the Steering Committee which sets out the expectations of them and the commitment that will be required both in time and in practical assistance that their organization can offer to the project, such as distributing the resource produced, or promoting the outcome of the project to clients.
Challenges to Establishing a Steering Committee
Steering committees are an important component of the project management process. When creating one, there are some challenges and potential pitfalls that leaders need to be aware of.
- Handling Differing Personalities and Interests: It is crucial for leaders to have various levels of managers and executives on the steering committee. This creates a lot of positives as many voices and interests can be taken into account throughout the project lifecycle. Unfortunately, this can also create a challenge as personality conflicts can arise since those in senior leadership may take a more active decision-making role over those that are mid-level managers. This can create tense conflicts and competing interests.
- An Increase in Meetings: Naturally, steering committees will want to meet to decide on project budgets, scopes, changes, and any other topic that could arise. The potential problem with this is that it could take time away from the actual work that needs to be done. Team members may have to wait longer than anticipated for decisions from the steering committee which could push the entire project past a deadline.
- The Threat of Bargaining: Again, many of the members of the steering committee could only be concerned about their interest. Therefore, leaders have to be sure they set parameters about how long the project will be analyzed and how many requirements and specifications will be changed or added. This needs to be outlined through the steering committee creation process.
- Defined Roles: This might not be everyone’s first time on a steering committee, so many will probably know the basics of how it works. However, everyone does not have experience on the current project. As a result, it is imperative that leaders clearly define what the role of each member of the steering committee is. This can be difficult if it is a large group of people.
- A Higher Probability of Group-Think: Often, there is either one person or a small group of people who decide to take the lead in a group setting. They may either have strong opinions or act in their own self-interests, which makes it difficult for those who oppose them to voice their views concerning project scope or direction.