Tuning Your Project Steering Committee

Imagine a bicycle wheel perfectly tuned and spinning without wobble or wasted motion.  Each spoke is adjusted to balance and support every other spoke.  This is the foundation of a fast and safe trip on a bicycle.  If a wheel is out of tune, energy is lost to friction, the rider becomes less stable as the bicycle picks up speed, and vibrations threaten bearings, brakes, and safety.  The risk of a trip ending crash goes up.

Imagine a project steering committee.  Each person at the table is important to the project’s success by way of their support within and outside the project.  Imagine each person at the table sharing a common vision, understanding one another’s perspective, and trusting one another.  Each person may not always agree with the others, but each is committed to the project’s success.  They are able to set direction, discuss issues, make decisions, commit resources, and communicate supportively to the organization and project stakeholders.

Imagine your project steering committee.  Are they in tune with a common vision, understanding of one another’s perspectives, and mutual trust?   If not, your project may feel wobbly, unstable, overheated by friction, and unresponsive when you need to change speed or direction.  It may be time to tune the wheels. 

I can recall (vividly remember) being part of projects where the steering committee was out of tune.  The story might go something like this:

  • The project is conceived of by Allen, a business leader, as his group needs new tools to more efficiently do its job.
  • The project is embraced and championed by Betty, Allen’s boss, the executive sponsor, as the new capabilities proposed could help her pursue a new strategy she feels is essential to the success of the company.
  • The project is dependent on Carl, the company’s chief information officer, as the new capabilities involved implementing new information technology.  Carl has definite ideas about how the new tools should fit into emerging standards so that they support similar projects.
  • The project is very interesting to Donna, an executive whose division is served by Allen’s group and who has definite ideas about what Allen should be doing to help her succeed.  Donna is a project stakeholder.
  • The project is managed by Ethan, the project manager.  Ethan wants to complete a well defined scope on time and within budget.
  • Allen, Betty, Carl, Donna, and Ethan comprise the project’s steering committee.

And so the story begins.

  • Ethan and Allen sit down and draft the project charter to define its objectives, scope, and constraints.  Ethan thoroughly discusses what Allen needs so that his group can be more efficient.  Allen has specific ideas about what tools he would like to acquire as his group is spending too much time in certain areas.  They document this and go to Betty.
  • Betty is looking forward to meeting with Ethan and Allen because she is worried that Allen’s group may be eliminated in upcoming budget discussions.  Allen’s group does great work but they are perceived as slow.  Allen realizes this and wants to build more capacity in his group with the project.  Betty reads the draft project charter and is concerned.  The new tools will help Allen’s group do what they do faster, but during the course of the project no one else in the company is likely to notice the benefits of the substantial investment in the new tools.  Betty wants Allen’s group to be able to support a new initiative she has in mind that will be good for the company and increase the contribution her division makes to the company’s bottom line.  She sees the project as a transformation of Allen’s group using the new tools as a kick start.  The new tools have to be implemented in a way that shows immediate results.  Betty asks for changes in the project charter.
  • Ethan meets with his boss, Carl, the CIO.  Ethan describes Allen’s and Betty’s ideas for the project and new tools.  Carl is happy that Betty is willing to make an investment in the new tools as he can see uses for the tools by several of his major customers for IT services.  He hopes that the tools acquisition will consider a broad range of needs.  Both agree that this will require more time and coordination, and possibly more money.  Ethan urges Carl to meet with Betty.  Carl agrees to try to find a time he and Betty can meet.  Carl knows that Betty may be resistant to any distractions to her plans.
  • Betty meets with Donna.  Donna and Betty manage divisions that have to collaborate to deliver their company’s services.  They often have different ideas about how this collaboration should be structured.  Betty is thinking of Donna when she thinks about Allen’s group’s future.  Donna is wondering if Allen’s group, on which she depends for key parts of her service, is capable of delivering what she needs.  The new project sounds like a good thing for Donna’s group, but only if it is implemented in a way that gets her what she needs by the end of the project.  She and Betty are thinking the same way, but for different reasons.  Betty asks Donna to be on the steering committee because she wants Donna’s support and Donna agrees because she wants to influence the project to meet her needs.
  • The project steering committee has its first meeting.  The primary agenda item is the project charter.  Ethan presents the charter.  His presentation is thorough and includes a PowerPoint deck that covers every aspect of the project’s objectives, scope, budget, schedule, key project management processes, and risks including mitigations.  Ethan’s presentation takes most of the meeting.  At the end, the steering committee has time to ask only a few questions about details and Ethan asks for agreement.  Hearing no objections, the meeting is adjourned.

Now, you, my honored reader, get to pick the end of the story.  A – the project proceeds smoothly delivering what everyone wants on time and within budget.  B – the project moves ahead but seems to encounter resistance from all participants.  It is hard to get commitments, agree to schedules, resolve issues, and make progress.  Steering committee meetings are inconsequential.  Project participants representing the different steering committee members seem to be going in different directions.

We want A, but if we get B, it might be because we didn’t start with or ever fully secure a shared vision, mutual understanding, and trust.  What can a project manager do, in circumstances like the one found in our story, to help tune the wheels before starting or during the trip to ensure that the journey is successful?  Here are some ideas:

  1. “Seek first to understand, and then to be understood” – Stephen Covey.  I believe that we can’t have a shared vision or trust one another if we don’t first try to understand one another.  If a person you are working with believes that you have listened and understand them, then they will be more likely to trust you and be willing to hear what you have to say.  As project managers, our first job is to understand our stakeholders’ needs and expectations of the project.  These may not fit together neatly.   Our job working with stakeholders from a somewhat inferior position isn’t to make their needs and expectations fit together, it’s to understand and document what they are.  If there are incongruities, then the steering committee’s first job has to be to work them out.  They have to understand one another.  Our job is to help them do that.  Not an easy job, but it’s not as hard as crafting the reconciled shared vision on our own and convincing them that we are right.
  2. Ask the “five whys.”  A recurring theme in the 14 principles of the Toyota Production System (Lean) as expressed in “The Toyota Way” by Jeffrey Liker is the five-why analysis.  It compels us to ask “why” five times to better understand any expressed problem or need.  For example, in our story the expressed need was “I need new tools.”  Why?  “It takes too long for my team to put together our products.” Why is that a problem? “Other divisions need our products to serve the company’s clients, and they think we take too long.” Why do they think that?  “They are having difficulty competing with other companies that may provide the service faster.”  Why is that a problem?  “If we can’t compete, we will go out of business.”  Five whys get us to the root cause or need.  Sometimes this is an existential need.  While it seems that the fifth “why” may have gone too far, it’s the final step to getting the needs of all the stakeholders to converge at the same place.  When they can do that, then they have common ground and are better able to discuss their needs together.
  3. Encourage expressions of trust, commitment, and accountability.  In his book “Leading Change” John P. Kotter describes an eight stage process for leading change.  These steps need to be done in order and each builds on the next.  Leaving steps out doesn’t work.  I won’t cover them all in this post, but let’s look at the first two foundational steps.  The first step is establishing a sense of urgency based on a common understanding of an important need.  This might be an existential need (without it we won’t exist).  The second step is creating the guiding coalition.  This is the group, like our steering committee, with the power to lead the change.  This group has to work as a team.  Teamwork requires the factors we are talking about:  a shared vision, an understanding of one another’s needs, and trust.  Once trust is present, the team can make commitments and be accountable to one another.  This should be expressed explicitly.  As project managers, we go for this in the project charter.  But, how often do projects go ahead without signed charters that clearly express shared vision, mutual understanding of different needs that lead to trust, commitments, and accountability?  Probably too often.  The charter doesn’t have to get all the details, but it has to form a guiding coalition based on shared vision, mutual understanding, trust, commitment, and accountability.

So, as you are working to build speed, if the wheels on your project start wobbling, it’s time to stop and make sure that your project steering committee is in tune.  Look for a shared vision, common understanding of one another’s needs, and expressions of trust, commitment, and accountability.  Without these qualities, you may have a rough and perilous ride.

Thanks for reading.

Copyright Glenn Briskin and “The Other Side of Risk” 2012

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