Large and ongoing projects don’t stay on track on their own. A steering committee guides a body on a project from start to finish. The project may be an operational project or a committee that steers a board of directors. Steering committees are made up of various people, which can include some combination of board officers, senior stakeholders, experts, executives, department employees and client representatives. Members of steering committees meet and collaborate to define, prioritize and control projects. They also provide guidance to the project manager on various issues. The statistics on project completion aren’t strong. Less than 3% of companies successfully complete 100% of their projects. The average company exceeds its budget by 27%. About half of all projects budgeted for over $1 million fail. Steering committees keep projects on budget and on time and prevent associated risks.

What Do Steering Committees Do? 

One example of a steering committee is an executive committee. An executive committee is usually composed of the board’s officers and sometimes the executive director. In this capacity, the executive committee acts as a steering committee because it steers the direction of the full board and prioritizes the board’s issues.

Another example of a steering committee is a group of people who collaborate on projects. In this situation, steering committees ensure that projects align with business objectives. They identify and monitor risks, ensure the quality of the project, and monitor progress and timelines. The committee is able to approve changes in the scope of the project, budget and strategy.

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.

Challenges for Steering Committees

Challenges are bound to surface during steering committee work. Being the chair of a steering committee presents trials of many kinds because it requires being attuned to people and handling a large variety of tasks.

The committee chair must manage many people, including those who are at various levels of the company hierarchy, have very different personalities and have varying levels of interest in the project.

The number of meetings increases by virtue of needing to keep the project moving along. Meetings take time away from working on the project. In addition, meetings can hold projects up while employees await decisions from the steering committee.

With so many people working on a project, there is always the threat that someone will put their own interests before those of the project or the company.

Still another challenge is defining the roles of the people working on the project, which may be different roles than they have in the normal course of their employment. Another issue that makes defining roles difficult is that roles may overlap in large groups.

Whether groups are large or small, there’s always the risk of groupthink. “Groupthink” refers to a group of people in which one or more people within the group are afraid to express an opinion that varies from that of the majority of the group. As a result, they vote along the same lines as others in the group, even though they disagree internally. When members give in to groupthink, it defeats the purpose of bringing members together to gather diverse opinions and perspectives.

Best Practices for Developing a Steering Committee

As with most types of meetings, steering committees function best when they adhere to best practices for board committees.

Unless all steering committee members have experience on such a committee, it’s best to provide them with some training and coaching along the way. The rest of the committee can’t know what no one has told them.

It’s also a good idea to keep steering committees to a manageable size. About six members is a large enough size to represent all of the appropriate parties. Steering committees will also find that this size group is small enough to be efficient.

The steering committee chair sets the agenda and should provide a copy of it to all committee members at least seven to 10 days before the steering committee meets. This timeframe gives committee members plenty of time to plan to attend the meeting and be ready to ask questions and to participate actively. Along with the agenda, committee chairs should attach the minutes of the last meeting, including an updated action list for completed actions and actions that are still in progress. The chair may also add a general progress report of the project and drafts of relevant documents that are being developed.

Before email technology became commonplace, project steering committees typically held meetings monthly, which wasn’t always the most efficient way to monitor progress. With the development of email accounts, best practices for steering committees have changed. Steering committees now set benchmarks for meetings and communicate progress on a monthly basis via email.

Steering committee chairs have to find the balance between making decisions quickly and with the appropriate forethought and not rushing them too hastily. They need to make decisions efficiently to avoid having to push back deadlines. It also helps to have a liaison between the project manager and the steering committee.

In addition to streamlining communication with email, technology provides other governance solutions for steering committees. A board portal by Diligent Corporation offers a secure platform for steering committee meetings. The program offers granular meetings so that only those who need access to various parts of the platform can obtain it. Diligent Messenger is a communications tool that provides a vastly higher level of security than average email and business accounts in order to keep steering committee progress highly confidential.

A steering committee is a hive of activity. When the right people have a good grasp of their responsibilities and they have a clear understanding of the parameters for decision-making, the path to their goals is paved with efficiency.