Steering Committees – What Are They and What Do I Need to Know?
A steering committee is a form of corporate governance made up of high-level executives, authorities, or stakeholders who provide strategic oversight and guidance to one or more projects within an organisation. When these people meet, it’s called a steering committee meeting.
Steering committees typically answer to the top executives of an organisation, assuming they themselves are not part of that executive. These top executives are the people responsible for creating a vision or direction for the company. Any visions, goals or initiatives conjured from the top executives are subsequently handed to the steering committee. It is at this stage that the steering committee breaks down the practicalities of achieving these goals, visions, or initiatives.
A steering committee does not manage the project, nor is it intended to be a “voting democracy”. The management of the project is passed down to the project/programme manager. The steering committee then “steer” the project/programme managers toward the desired outcome. This is achieved through deliberation, ideation, consideration, recommendation, and decision making. The project/programme managers execute any decisions or suggestions received from the steering committee.
Most projects have their own unique objectives, strategies, and challenges. Not every steering committee will find a universal template for proceedings that they can follow in order to ensure a successful project. Below are our own general guidelines, suggestions, and considerations for working with or part of a steering committee. A successful steering committee will pave the way for a successful project. When steering committees fail, the results can be detrimental to organisations, wasting critical time, money, and manpower.
The Main Purposes of a Steering Committee
Many of the larger tasks that face a project will require a high-level decision-making authority. Aside from the general guidance of the project and instructing the project/programme manager, steering committees are entrusted with the decisions that ultimately determine how the project will look upon conclusion. Some common tasks and decisions steering committees deal with include:
- Serving as the main advocate for any endeavours or initiatives undertaken;
- Establishing how the project benefits are defined and measured;
- Selecting the right expertise to manage the project;
- Checking, approving, or rejecting any project management plans;
- Creating working groups;
- Applying or limiting the use of any organisational assets i.e. people, money, and other facilities;
- Prioritising project deliverables as well as interim deliverables;
- Monitoring progress against project management plan;
- Informing and making recommendations to corporate management;
- Proposing solutions to any strategical shortcomings;
- Reviewing any changes to the project management plan;
- Resolving conflicts between any vested parties
The decision to conclude a project is traditionally dealt with by corporate management, but any discussion on the matter should be held during a steering committee meeting. The steering committee then presents their recommendations to corporate management as mentioned above.
The format of steering committee meetings can vary depending on the exact reason why the meeting has been called (as this can include any of the matters mentioned above). There will be elements of the meeting that will become a regular occurrence. Based on this, the format of a steering committee meeting can include:
- Regrets – chair of the meeting will read out who will not be attending and why.
- Minutes of the previous meeting – the minutes should be emailed to all committee members prior to the meeting. Everyone should agree with them. If the minutes omit anything or contain any errors, this is the opportunity to have them corrected.
- Action list – any actions that were required after the previous meeting should be listed after the minutes. The committee should discuss the status of the action list at this stage.
- Status report – the project manager’s status report should be presented to the steering committee, either in person or in a tangible document.
- Main items for discussion – every steering committee meeting should have several items that require immediate attention and subsequent recommendations. Items that are typically discussed are: milestones reached; completion status; financial status; staffing; project change requests; decision requests; fault reports; concerns and recommendations; planning for evaluation.
- Other business – any other topics that require the steering committee attention.
- Action items – a compiled list of actions required to be completed by the steering committee members in advance of the next meeting.
- Next meeting – the chair will announce the details of the next meeting, time/date/location.
It’s crucial to the success of steering committee meetings that there is a pre-planned code of conduct. Critical items that need addressing prior to these meetings are:
- How to make decisions
- How to manage participation
- How to handle any disagreements or conflict
- What to do in between steering committee meetings
When these rules are not defined, steering committee meetings might divulge into a forum for demonstrating power and authority. This immediately compromises the integrity of the steering committee and endangers the project as a whole.
The problem is that when one person dominates, the rest of the committee may begin to lean towards the dominators personal preference. Thus, valuable information and perspectives from other members of the committee may never be heard.
If one steering committee member, or perhaps the designated chair, begins to dominate proceedings, consider utilising a shared leadership model for meetings. Ideally, both designated leaders will bring different perspectives and styles of leadership to meetings. The idea is to create a balance and to keep everyone in check.
Steering committee meetings often require a lot of problem-solving or idea generating. To assist this, there is a multitude of ideation devices that can be utilised during a steering committee meeting to achieve results. It can be difficult to choose the right exercise for you and your team and a lot of trial and error is required. Here are some exercises we’ve found useful in the past that work well in a project meeting:
- Brainstorming – Brainstorming is ideal for problem-solving and allows for maximum interaction and engagement among committee members. Take all views on board, there are no wrong answers in a brainstorm. Use sparingly, over-reliance on brainstorming will end up with a brainstorm session on what to brainstorm next.
- Brainwriting – If your brainstorming session isn’t generating the level of engagement you require, brainwriting is a great alternative. The chair pitches the ‘problem statement’ while handing out a sheet with the problem statement displayed at the top. In silence, each member writes 3 solutions or ideas to the problem statement. After 5 minutes of this, everyone passes their sheet to the left. Everyone then writes 3 more ideas inspired by those already on the sheet. After several rounds, you should be left with dozens, possibly hundreds of ideas and solutions.
- Time-Boxing – If your team cannot reach a decision on a certain topic or is struggling to generate any solutions or ideas, declare that they have a certain amount of time to reach a conclusion or else you will park the idea and move on with the agenda. If this occurs, ask the committee members what they believe they need in order to reach a conclusion, make note of this and take action on it at a later time. –
- Best Worst Ideas – By asking your attendees for the worst possible solutions to your problem, you can help remove any lingering self-consciousness they may be harbouring. It’s a lot easier to come up with a bad idea than a good one, so you should generate plenty. Discuss these bad ideas, what could you do to make them good ideas?
Be sure to check out our standalone blog on producing effective, engaging meetings for a detailed approach to getting the most out of your team.
Attendees of a steering committee meeting are all pre-selected. These members normally come from persons within an organisation who have the authority and ability to make important decisions. When selecting these committee members, keep diversity in mind. The people you select should share a common goal, but whose opinions and agendas may differ greatly. This diversity helps ensure your steering committee is adaptable and makes better decisions.
The ideal number for a steering committee is around 6. The reasoning behind this is that with 6, the leadership will less likely be viewed as a form of dictatorship. There is also just fewer than the number of people that typically slows a project down. Steering committees also require strong leadership. The chairing of the committee should be entrusted with the actual authority to make key decisions.
Remote Meeting Tool
Ensure that any steering committee member or any relevant stakeholders to your steering committee are invited. If they cannot physically attend the meeting, it’s best to utilise a remote meeting tool like virtual meetings or conference calls. Check out our very own conference call solutions here.