Full commitment

Project Governance

Steering Committees that don’t chicken out

For project steering committees to perform excellently all members need to offer their full commitment to the project – they all need to be pigs. In addition four other skills and competencies need to be present in the steering committee.

Project Governance

The metaphor of pigs and chickens is used powerfully to underline the commitment to the roles in the scrum – from the agile project management methodology.

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The same principles apply to the steering committee members of any project. The pig turns down the chicken’s offer to join her in opening a Bacon & Eggs restaurant. The pig felt that she would be truly committed, while the chicken would only be involved!

We need full commitment from the steering committee members – we need them to be pigs, not chickens, who chicken out when the though gets going.

Summary

For project steering committees to perform excellently all members need to offer their full commitment to the project – they all need to be pigs. In addition four other skills and competencies need to be present in the steering committee.

The 5 faces of the steering committee

All steering committee members have to be pigs at all times, but not all of them need to cover all the other four areas. The four areas must however be covered by the full steering committee together, that – by the way – must act as a team! Getting all steering committee members to act as pigs, creating excellent steering committees, and thereby heavily increasing the chances of successfully in projects in a given area, requires a change journey.

A change journey that respects the fact that ownership has to be created amongst middle and upper management: Ownership of the pig role, and ownership of the four additional skills and competencies of steering committees. Middle and upper management are typically the members of projects’ steering committees.

Example 1: Steering Committee Code of Conduct (StC CoC)

One company had worked with a steering committee for their IT project portfolio for a long time, but the steering committee didn’t work as well as they should. For one thing the steering committee members didn’t act as pigs. In the worst cases steering committee members (including the chairman) consistently didn’t prioritise the steering committee meetings and didn’t show for the meetings.

In this case it was chosen to call the guidelines “The Code of Conduct” to stress that the steering committees should act according to these expectations – also the title got the odour of policing – actually part of the guidelines were formulated as paragraphs (§§§). The elements of the Code of conduct were:

  1. A hat (that steering committee members should mentally put on at each meeting) with the objectives, responsibilities and values of the steering committee – the project phase model to underline the steering committees’ role in this
  2. A presentation of the code of conduct that is given to all steering committees at their first meeting
  3. A template for a steering committee code of conduct contract that is filled in with the project name and the names of the steering committee members. The contract is then signed by all steering committee members and kept by the chairman (i.e. the project owner). This is for the steering committee members to show their commitment towards each other and the project.

A specific deliverable of the change journey is guidelines for project steering committees. Subsequent communication of these guidelines is crucial in successful implementation, and hence the guidelines are often named and formed to underline their specific intentions. Examples of powerful naming: “Steering committee code of conduct” and “Steering committee survival kit”.

Steering committee excellence is the most urgent next step

Many organisations have in recent years made a wholehearted effort to improve the success of projects within their organisations. This includes initiatives like training of project managers and building project management methodologies. Having looked across industries of different sizes, global reach and maturity within project management – in our opinion and experience – the single most value creating effort you can do is to improve the work of project steering committees, because it is crucial to the success of your project portfolio - and thereby the development of your organisation. The work of steering committees is not good enough in most organisations and the high-quality work of a steering committee is a prerequisite to succeed with other initiatives within the realm of projects.

Importance

There is no simple formula for getting success with projects. A number of factors influence this. Most organisations, however, are realising that the work of the steering committee and the project owner are important factors of these – maybe the most important – in tough competition with the capabilities of the project manager.

Niels Teilberg Søndergaard
Niels Teilberg Søndergaard
+45 3085 8080

Situation

So, how well are steering committees performing in your organisation? The most common answers to this question range from “we could do much better” to “we are at ground zero in this”. Asked about which of the five dimensions of steering committees no dimension seems to do well, but the pig-dimension is especially mentioned as an improvement area.

Prerequisite

The performance of the project’s steering committee can also be considered a crucial prerequisite of project success. In other words: a poor steering committee can ruin any project, but a well-functioning steering committee is a basic necessity to give a project a chance to succeed (in addition to a number of other success factors – e.g. the capabilities of the project manager). An example of this is: The excellent project manager can make an excellent decision making package, but if the steering committee doesn’t have the capabilities to make the right decisions on top of this, it doesn’t matter how good the decision making package was.

Steering committee

Even though organisations and project management methodologies name and define project roles differently most of these have a group of people that assists the project owner (also often called project sponsor) in fulfilling their responsibilities. The overall and most important responsibility is to take overall ownership of the project and the effect of the project. We call this group the steering committee of the project. Size and composition of the group will depend on the nature of the project – and how well the five areas in this article are addressed.

Board of the company “Project Inc.”

In many ways you can compare a project to a company. In both cases you have an organisation of people that together wish to achieve one or more objectives. In this analogy you compare the project manager to the CEO, and the steering committee to the board of the company. The project owner is the chairman of the board. The board analogy accentuates the three following competencies of a steering committee.

Business

No matter what type of project the steering committee is heading – e.g. IT project or project development project – all the traditional business school disciplines are relevant in supporting and challenging the project – e.g. investment management, people management, strategy and risk management. Often these disciplines are not represented deeply in the project management itself, as this is often staffed on the basis of the functional area of the project.

Focus on objectives and effect

In challenging and supporting the project – at initiation and during execution – it is vital that the steering committee doesn’t focus only on milestones, progress, budget and technical aspects of the solution and deliverables, but also – maybe mainly – on the business applicability of the solution, the benefits, the objectives and business effect of the solution. Often, projects drift, to focus on “technicalities” during the project, and in this situation it is especially important that the steering committee focuses on the bigger picture – the effect to be achieved.

The holistic picture

It is important that the steering committee together as a team, sees and always remembers the full picture of a project. This goes for all phases of a project, but especially at approval, at the “expensive” gate in the beginning of the project. The gate between planning and execution – in some companies referred to as “the golden gate”.

In fact it is not too difficult to remember all elements of the holistic picture at all times – they can be summarised under these four headings:

  1. Why are we doing the project (e.g. business case)
  2. What is the project delivering (e.g. scope)
  3. How will the project make it happen (e.g. schedule)
  4. What risks are there in the project – within all three of the above.

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