February 8, 2017
Recently, I had the opportunity to observe a steering committee meeting for an enterprise IT project which brought back to mind some lessons learned along the way through my career – and not because the meeting went well!
The steering committee had the typical structure:
- Led by a senior “C” level executive; he carries a very no nonsense, nuts and bolts, black and white approach to his world.
- Another Vice President
- Two department directors
- There were also other team members on the phone from overseas and various other locations in the US.
- My role was to be an outside observer/commenter, and as it turned out, to provide my evaluation of the meeting.
The meeting was scheduled for one hour, and even before it started, I had a bad feeling. The only item that had been distributed prior to the meeting was a pretty high-level agenda.
Things started well enough, with introductions and small talk. The senior executive asked that we get going.
It was downhill from there.
The project team started by sharing that the budget expense rate was burning faster than the project completion rate by a few percent. This caused a question to be asked… which was not answered in a confident and clear manner, and the resultant discussion absolutely derailed the meeting.
I will not go into all of the awkward, painful details, but suffice to say that by the time we were twenty minutes into this meeting the senior executive called a halt to proceedings (quite rightly), expressed his displeasure, and directed the team to get their act together and come back in two weeks to try again.
So what happened?
In a nutshell, there was a lack of clear information and structure to the meeting, combined with a lack of a designated leader from the project team. This, combined with a lack of preparatory information prior to the meeting, left the committee with no reasonable way to have an effective discussion.
A steering committee exists mainly for two reasons:
- The first is to make sure that an experienced, senior group of leaders within the company has clear visibility to the project or activity so that they can provide guidance from a holistic, company perspective. (It turns out that folks who are heads down executing a project can lose sight of the strategic and guiding principles under which the project operates.)
- The second is to provide a point of escalation to the project team when they cannot agree on a decision or choose a direction.
Given their purpose for existing, a steering committee wants to understand three topics:
- Understand very clearly, what is going on in the project.
- Understand where there are constraints or blockers that the team has not been able to overcome.
- Understand what decisions the team needs help with.
How can we help the steering committee?
First, identify the person who will hold responsibility for ensuring that the agenda and handouts are completed for the committee. Many times this would be the project manager, but it could also be a senior leader on the project team as well. This person does not necessarily prepare all of the documentation, but they are responsible for making sure it is prepared, is accurate, and is complete. In addition, this person will lead the committee meeting.
Second, develop a clear, consistent agenda to be followed at every steering committee meeting.
- Start with the current status and measures, and be prepared with backup information and data to explain the numbers.
- A section, which clearly outlines the commitments made at the last meeting, and how the team has performed against those commitments. Again, be prepared for questions and concerns so that you can answer them with clarity and confidence.
- A section, which clearly outlines the commitments being made for the next meeting.
- A section for projects risks and concerns.
- A section for blockers, which have been identified, and need the help of the steering committee to resolve.
- A section or appendix with a copy of the current project plan.
- A section or appendix with detailed budgetary information.
- Other sections and information as might be requested by the committee or required for the particular project.
Third, make sure that all information which can be distributed to the committee prior to the meeting is distributed with time for review, at least two days in advance. Those sitting on the committee are typically very busy, so you need to give them the time for preparation. This should include detailed notes from the last meeting, which means someone other than the person leading the presentation must be committed to taking and distributing meeting notes.
Fourth, a subset of the project team should review the materials prior to the committee meeting in order to identify expected questions and concerns, and to prepare to be able to answer those questions and concerns. Winging it almost never works…
Fifth, be honest and forthright. Glossing over issues because there are concerns that the committee might be mad or disappointed is not a good idea. The committee has one purpose, and that is to ensure the success of the project. They cannot play their role without knowing everything that they need to know.
One last thing to remember. Steering committees and the people who make them up do not like surprises, especially bad ones.
In summary, spending just a little bit of time planning the ownership and management of the steering committee from the project team perspective will make things a lot easier, and will benefit the project in the short and long run! So give it some thought… then grab the steering (committee) wheel and drive!