The loaded cost of running a committee of senior managers can easily exceed $5000 per hour once the opportunity costs are included. Productive committees offset this by creating value, hopefully significantly greater than their running costs. Project and program steering committees should be no different!
However, if the steering committee is simply focused on ‘governance’ it is highly unlikely to be generating any significant value. At the management level where most steering committees operate there is very little governance decision making needed and conformance and assurance usually needs specialists.
The first four functions of governance defined in The Functions of Governance are:
- Determining the objectives of the organisation: this is done by the organisation’s governing body and implemented through the strategic plan. The project should have been selected because it contributes to achieving the strategic plan, a function of portfolio management, but once the project has started it is rather too late.
- Determining the ethics of the organisation: this is done by the organisation’s governing body; it is a duty of every manager to support the organisation’s ethical standards and ensure the people they are managing conform. But you do not need a committee to ensure this occurs, just the project manager’s line manager (usually the Sponsor).
- Creating the culture of the organisation: again this is done by the organisation’s governing body; it is a duty of every manager to support the organisation’s cultural standards and ensure the people they are managing conform. But you do not need a committee to ensure this occurs, just the project manager’s line manager (usually the Sponsor).
- Designing and implementing the governance framework for the organisation: this should be done before the project is started and include delegations of authority for expenditure and decision making and escalation paths. If it has not been done, one half hour meeting of the sponsor and a few key managers can set the delegations.
In summary, the aspects of governance that determine the way the organisation operates and how the project or program will fit into the overall governance framework does not need a monthly meeting of any type. There are management responsibilities but these are vested in the responsible line manager, typically the Sponsor (see more on the role of a Sponsor).
The final two functions of governance are ensuring accountability by management and conformance by the organisation. A steering committee can certainly focus on these aspects of governance but if they do, they are largely wasting their time and most of the $5000 per hour. There are two fundamental reasons for this:
- It is extremely poor governance for a managing entity to seek to provide assurance that the people it is managing are conforming. Assurance oversight should be provided by an independent body.
- Most aspects of project surveillance and assurance require high levels of technical skill. It is highly unlikely any of the managers on a steering committee posses these skills (see more on project surveillance).
The organisational entity best suited for the work of surveillance and assurance is a PMO with appropriate support from management. If there is an effective PMO structure in place with the ability to identify shortcomings, backed up by responsible line management there is no need for another committee to second guess the process a few weeks later (see more on PMOs).
Some of the completely unproductive ‘governance’ functions undertaken by ‘steering committees’ include:
- Validating correct procedures have been followed (properly resourced PMOs are a better and cheaper option).
- Discussing negative variances and allocating blame (management action is needed not committee discussions).
- Second guessing management decisions after the event and interfering in the day-to-day running of the project (project professionals are not helped by interference from amateurs – even if they are senior managers).
- Listening to lengthy reports on what has happened during the last month (effective reporting is all that is needed).
Being involved in this type of activity may make the steering committee members feel important but contributes little or nothing of value in a well governed and structured organisation; if the organisation is not well governed and structured the committee members would be far better off focusing on fixing the real problems.
Steering Committees can be highly valuable!
The constitution of most steering committees creates a real opportunity to add value to the overall management of a project or program, but only if the committee focuses on helping craft success. Steering committees typically include members from a range of areas within the organisational affected by the project and its deliverables. Therefore as a group its members are uniquely placed to assist the project manager and sponsor deliver a successful project by helping them steer a path through the organisational politics and stakeholder issues that confront any project or program.
This objective can be achieved by making the members of the steering committee personally responsible for the realisation of value from the organisation’s investment in project, and in particular for dealing with the organisational change and stakeholder issues that are outside of the project manager’s responsibilities. Some of the key responsibilities allocated to the steering committee may include:
- Responsibility for preparing the organisation for the changes needed to make use of the project’s deliverables and the realisation of value.
- Managing the interface between the project and the organisational change management work
- Being available to assist in the management of stakeholder issues escalated from the project and/or identified in areas outside of the direct influence of the project.
- Ensuring effective benefits management is in place for the life of the initiative (ie, it continues after the project is closed).
- Dealing with any other aspect of organisational politics that may affect the work of the project or the on-going change initiative.
- Making value based decisions on complex change proposals, including contributing positively to the resolution of intractable problems, to optimise the value outcome for the organisation.
Obviously the steering committee also needs to take an interest in the project its steering to success. The problem is these are all management activities, not governance activities (for more on this see Does organisational governance exist?).
Effective steering committees work with the project manager and sponsor to identify the external influences causing problems and help the project successfully navigate the organisational stakeholder environment. They also resist the urge to interfere in the actual running of the project or program. There is a world of difference between a collaborative and supportive approach focused on success and the negative approach adopted by so many steering committees that seems to translate ‘governance’ into giving the project manager a ‘hard time’ to ensure compliance with ‘due process’ even if this adds to the existing problems.
Are your organisation’s steering committees worth their hourly running costs?