I recently had the opportunity to observe a steering committee meeting for an Infor LN project. The experience brought back to mind some lessons learned throughout my career — but not because the meeting went well!
The steering committee (or advisory board) had a typical structure. It was led by a C-level executive with a no-nonsense, nuts-and-bolts, black-and-white approach. A VP and two department directors were in the room with us, and there were other team members on the phone from overseas and various other locations in the US.
My role was to be an outside observer and to provide my evaluation of the meeting. The meeting was scheduled for one hour. But I had a hunch that it was not going to last that long when we only received a sparse, vague agenda ahead of time.
The session started off well enough, with introductions and some small talk. But then the senior executive wanted to get going, and it was all downhill from there. The project team began by sharing that the budget expense rate was burning faster than the project completion rate by several percentage points. Then came a question from the committee without a clear answer from the project team, and the resultant discussion absolutely derailed the meeting.
I don’t need to get into all the awkward, painful details, but twenty minutes into this meeting the senior executive (quite rightly) called a halt to proceedings. They expressed their displeasure (inappropriately). And the exec directed the team to get their act together and come back in two weeks to try again.
So what happened? A few common mistakes derailed this discussion (and they were probably symptomatic of other structural problems at the heart of the project):
- A lack of clear information provided before the meeting
- No defined agenda for the meeting
- Not having a designated leader or owner from the project team
This meeting (and likely the project as a whole) could have gone much better if the team had just invested a bit more time defining roles and the structure of the project earlier on.
What Is the Purpose of a Steering Committee?
A steering committee is a group of business leaders who work together to oversee and steer the direction of a project or initiative from a strategic perspective. Ideally, this advisory board has stakeholders representing the primary groups that will be affected by a project, such as customers, departments, contractors, etc.
A steering committee exists for two main reasons. The first is to make sure that an experienced, senior group of leaders within the company have clear visibility into the project or activity so that they can provide guidance from a holistic, company-level perspective. Not surprisingly, the folks who are heads down executing a project can sometimes lose sight of wider business strategy or guiding principles under which the project operates.
The second primary function of is to provide the project team with a point of escalation when they cannot agree on a decision or choose a direction. This allows the team to connect with leaders in the organization to increase alignment and maintain velocity in their work.
Given their purpose, the advisory board should understand very clearly what is going on in the project, where there are constraints or blockers that the team has not been able to overcome and what decisions the team needs help with.
But they can’t do that in a vacuum.
Project Teams Need to Take Charge in Steering Committee Meetings
How can project teams make the most of their relationship with an advisory board? And how can they avoid situations like the one I recently experienced? Here are some of the most important tips:
1. Designate a Meeting Leader
Identify a person who will ensure that the agenda and handouts are completed before any advisory board meetings. Often, this will 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 the documentation themselves, but they are responsible for making sure it is prepared, it is accurate and it is complete. In addition, this person should lead the meeting.
Your team will also want to designate someone else to take detailed notes on the meeting.
2. Implement a Standard Meeting Agenda
Develop a consistent agenda to be followed at every meeting. Start with the current status of the project. And be sure to include a section that outlines the commitments made at the last meeting and how the team has performed against those commitments.
From the outset, be prepared for questions and concerns so that you can answer them with clarity and confidence — as well as numbers to back up your information.
After the status update, make room to discuss any project risks and concerns, especially as they relate to blockers that have been identified and need help from the advisory board to resolve.
Lastly, leave room to record and review the commitments being made for the next meeting, which you can then distribute afterward to foster greater alignment.
In addition, you should include an agenda section or appendix with detailed budgetary information. (Budget should also be a talking point at the tail end of the status report.) And you should strongly consider including a section or appendix with a copy of the current project plan.
These are the most important points to cover in any steering committee meeting, but other reporting may be requested by the committee or required for your particular project.
3. Make Sure the Steering Committee Gets Information Ahead of Time
Distribute any current information to the committee prior to the meeting so everyone has time for review. In an ideal world, that should be at least two days ahead of the meeting. In most cases, the people sitting on a steering committee are very busy. They need the flexibility to find room in their schedule for their own catch-up and any additional preparation.
Whenever possible, include the notes from the previous meeting(s). One great way to do this is by keeping an ongoing, shareable document or notebook so anyone can review prior meeting notes.
4. Dedicate Time to Prepare for the Meeting
A subset of the project team should review materials before the committee meeting to identify potential questions and concerns. This group can prepare answers to those questions and concerns (and collect any data necessary to support those answers). Winging it is almost always a direct path to a catastrophe.
5. Honesty Truly Is the Best Policy
Be honest and forthright in your communications and in the meetings. Glossing over issues because the committee might be mad or disappointed is not a good idea. The steering committee has one goal, and that is to ensure the success of the project. They cannot play their role without knowing everything that they need to know.
And here’s one last thing to remember: steering committee members do not like surprises, especially bad ones. This is why clear and regular communications, thorough documentation and candid discussions are all necessary responsibilities of the project team.
Spending some time planning the ownership and management of the advisory board from the project team perspective will make things a lot easier over the long term. And it’s never too late to improve and benefit the project in the short term. All your team needs to do is grab the steering (committee) wheel and drive!
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