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What Is a Steering Committee and What Is Its Role?Reading time 7 minutes
There you are, staring at a blank document preparing to write a proposal that you’ve been told needs to be sent to a steering committee. Or maybe you’ve been told that a product you’re developing needs to change direction. It could even be that you’ve been tasked with forming a steering committee for your organization.
Steering committees are one of the most mature and widespread IT management practices. They’re also found outside IT, especially on project-based work. So chances are that you will continue to come across them directly or indirectly.
Whatever the case, you’re here now, trying to find out more about steering committees so that you can understand what’s going on and put your best piece of work forward. Either way, I’ve got you covered. In this post, I’ll not only cover what steering committees are but also the role of a steering committee, how it can increase business value, and how to ensure a steering committee makes the right decisions with the right data. Finally, I’ll give you an example to illustrate the value of good data.
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What Is a Steering Committee
A steering committee is an advisory body that’s part of IT—or other—governance. Members include experts, authority figures, and senior stakeholders in a project or organization. As a result, they have a significant stake in how each project is managed. Thus, key concerns for steering committees are the direction, scope, budget, timeliness, and methods used. Steering committees generally meet periodically to discuss each of these aspects and help set, or reset, direction.
Who Is on a Steering Committee
Members of the steering committee don’t usually perform the work they prescribe. Instead, senior managers or executives, important external stakeholders, and experts usually make up the committee. The particular makeup of each steering committee depends on the scope. For example, a project steering committee may involve the project manager and external stakeholders from customers. Meanwhile, an organizational steering committee may be made up of executives, certain board members, and department heads.
While the actual makeup of each steering committee may vary slightly, there are a few guidelines to keep in mind. Arguably most important, there should be a chairperson. The chairperson should be elected by the rest of the committee and should not own the project the committee is steering. This allows for more impartial chairing. In addition, the steering committee should be made up of diverse members. Moreover, these members should equally represent the various functions the steering committee oversees. This allows for the sharing of different opinions and ideas. In parallel, the committee must allow for open discussion so that each opinion can be heard and assessed. Finally, it must have clear goals and a well-managed agenda.
What Is Its Role
A steering committee is an advisory group that makes directional decisions on various organizational projects. Its members directly support project managers working toward strategic company directions.
In practice steering committees also do the following:
- Act as an advocate for initiatives and projects across the wider organization
- Set the strategic direction of projects
- Provide advice or direct input on budgeting, including assets (such as people), money, facilities, time, hiring, and marketing
- Establish project goals and scope as well as determine how success will be measured
- Assess and approve or reject project plans and changes to project plans
- Select project managers and experts to support projects
- Prioritize and reprioritize project deliverables
- Monitor project processes and plans
- Resolve conflicts between parties
- Come up with ideas for strategy and problem solving
- Provide expert input on concerns and issues related to projects or the overall business
- Develop policies and governance procedures
- Identify, monitor, and eliminate project and business risks
- Monitor project quality and adjust accordingly
How a Steering Committee Increases Value
Considering the range of functions steering committees provide, it might seem quite clear that they can increase business and project value. When working well, steering committees increase value by keeping projects on track, budgets in check, risks mitigated, and conflicts resolved. The fact that all of this happens apart from daily operations means the value gain is accentuated.
However, there’s a fine line between successful governance practices that increases value and bureaucratic governance practices that waste time and lead to poor decisions. Assuming a steering committee has followed the guidelines of having a chairperson, diverse members, and openness with clear goals, it’s a matter of what goes in that determines what comes out. Therefore, data is arguably the biggest contributor to value gain.
Making the Right Decisions With the Right Data
To gain the most value from a steering committee, it’s vital that the data is meaningful and understandable. Bad or incomprehensible data can jeopardize the ability of the steering committee to make informed and timely decisions. Usable data, on the other hand, facilitates clear communication and correctly represents the current state of events.
This raises the question: how do you ensure the right data goes to the steering committee?
Enter business intelligence, or BI.
Broadly speaking, business intelligence is the practice of collecting, storing, and analyzing organizational activities to generate reports, identify trends, and measure performance. The sole function of business intelligence is to improve and inform management decisions. (For more information, check out any of these Plutora blog posts that cover different aspects of BI).
It’s a match made in heaven. Implementing business intelligence practices allows companies to automatically or periodically generate reports and dashboards that can be viewed by steering committees. These reports and dashboards are all but guaranteed to contain meaningful data as they can be filled with metrics that have been defined as being important by the steering committee. All of this facilitates a better understanding of projects and progress, which allows steering committees to communicate clearly and make the right decisions in a timely manner.
Example: Value Stream Flows
I thought it best to provide a quick example of how the right data via BI can help steering committees increase value. If we quickly look at Plutora’s value streams dashboard and consider ourselves part of the steering committee, we can assess the value of good data.
On this dashboard, we can see which pieces of work are on schedule (blue or blue and gray), which pieces of work are experiencing delays (orange), and how much progress each piece of work has made through its planned time (amount of gray). With this information, steering committee members can choose to reallocate resources and make up for delays. They can also decide to drill down into specific projects or value streams to see what may have caused any delays. All of this from one well-constructed BI dashboard that contains good data.
Now consider the opposite. Without BI, the steering committee would have to hunt for this data in every single one of those cells. That’s thirty individual hunts where it could easily pick up misleading or bad data. The committee would then need to consider each data set individually, bring it all together, and try to make the same decision that would be possible in just a couple of minutes with a BI dashboard.
Clearly, making the right data available to a steering committee is vital in maximizing its value.