Steering the Project Steering Committee

People are usually the most variable element and that is why stakeholder management is so critical. Terry Quanborough
Terry Quanborough

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Introduction

We know that successful projects are usually built on the effective application of people, processes and technologies. People are usually the most variable element and that is why stakeholder management is so critical.

The PMBOK® Guide shows the processes of:

  • Identify Stakeholders during the Initiating Process Group
  • Plan Stakeholder Engagement during the Planning Process Group
  • Manage Stakeholder Engagement during the Executing Process Group
  • Monitor Stakeholder Engagement during the Monitoring and Controlling Process Group

Whilst there are usually many stakeholders in a project, and they are all important in some way; one of the most important groups is the governance and decision-making group often referred to as the Project Steering Committee (PSC). Depending upon your organisation this may go by other names such as:

  • Project Board (PB)
  • Project Control Board (PCB)
  • Project Control Group (PCG)
  • Project Review Committee (PRC) etc.

As Project Management Professionals we need to invest in managing governance groups although they are usually senior to us within the organisational hierarchy. Caution is recommended as wrong moves may be career-limiting in some organisations, but this can be performed effectively with careful planning.

I have served as both a Sponsor and also as a PSC member but am often at the sharp end as the Project Manager (PM) or Project Director (PD). Appropriate communication and stakeholder management are vital and contribute significantly to project success; yet often insufficient time is spent on planning, executing and controlling these aspects.

The PSC will be looking for confidence in the Project Manager and thus there is a need to portray confidence, control and professionalism so we should never stop ‘selling’ this image. Before forming a strategy, there is a need to assess your environment, which in PMI® terminology is 'Enterprise Environmental Factors.'

This article focuses on the logistical governance and management side as failure to consider this can lead to the Project Manager being consumed in ad hoc stakeholder issues whereas an effective strategy can release this time so that the focus can be on Planning, Executing, Monitoring and Controlling the project.

You may have PSC members who:

  • are for you or against you, and your project
  • want to be on the PSC and make decisions and recommendations and are generally proactive and supportive
  • do not want to be on the PSC but need to be seen to be represented
  • want to be on PSC, attend meetings but not wanting to make decisions or take action items (often referred to as ‘teflon people’ as nothing sticks)

If you don’t manage this important stakeholder group, they will manage you and you will attend many ‘please explain’ meetings, have many unplanned telephone conversations and send countless emails defending your project and project team.

Questions, Comments and Ideas

The following are questions, candid comments and some ideas that may help you ‘manage’ and steer the Project Steering Committee and determine your on-going PSC management strategy.

1. Do you have a PSC or similar governance oversight group or do you work without a PSC and get the job done anyway?

If you have a PSC... great, but if you don’t, then get one. A good starting point is whoever assigned the project to you, hopefully in the form of a written Project Charter. If you have the confidence and opportunity, you could suggest who should be on the PSC or at least discuss it with your Project Sponsor.

If this is the environment, it is important to follow-up so that PSC members know their roles and responsibilities.

Has your Project Sponsor been a sponsor before? If not, that may be an opportunity for you to ‘coach’ and you may find that this is welcomed.

2. Do you have a ‘virtual’ PSC spread across several locations/countries?

If your PSC is localised... great, but if ‘virtual’, consider whether this is going to work well for your specific project. If not, are you prepared to raise this with your Sponsor? This could be couched in the guise of it being critical that lines of communication need to be short to expedite approvals and general decision making. Your ‘local’ PSC can then report globally as required. The tyrannies of distance, time zones, video-conferencing and general language can be both time consuming and frustrating.

If you need to deal with a ‘virtual’ PSC, demand that the start time of meetings are adjusted to cater for the various time zones, i.e. share the inconvenience.

3. Do you have a PSC, with clearly defined, documented and agreed member roles and responsibilities?

Usually mature organisations have PSC Roles & Responsibilities within their project methodology and associated processes. Find out if this is the case in your organisation. Do not assume that because your organisation has defined R’s & R’s that the PSC members have seen them or understand them.

If they do not exist, ask your Project Management Office (PMO) to write some, assuming you have a PMO, or write some specifically for your project. If you do not know how to write them, there are many publications available plus information on the internet that can assist you. It is important to socialise the roles and responsibilities with the PSC.

Based on experience, having documented R’s & R’s is beneficial to PSC members the PM and team, and thus the project.

4. Do you have a good working relationship with the PSC?

Establish and maintain relationships with the PSC, especially the Project Sponsor. Meet with them as soon as possible. Be proactive and go and visit them, buy them a coffee from time to time etc. as this is a good investment.

Plan your strategy in advance such as:

  • Introduction
  • Issues, Concerns and Expectations dialogue
  • What do they want from me?
  • What do I want from them?
  • Agree on regular one on ones
  • Document a summary of the meeting and send (keep this as a one on one communication)

The above meeting output will form the basis of an important part of your Stakeholder Register.

If ‘roadblocks’ are put in your place and you are unable to meet members of your PSC, this is an early sign that relationships may be an issue during the project planning and execution. This is a project risk. Escalation to Project Sponsor may be necessary but recognise that they could be part of the problem.

Stay in touch with the PSC members as a quiet member may not necessarily be a supporter. Ask PSC members if they feel they are getting the right level of information from you and at the right frequency. You may be the first Project Manager to ask them this question and it increases your image as a professional Project Manager.

The next comments build on this subject.

5. Is the PSC accessible to you when required, both one on one or as a team?

Plan PSC ‘getting to know you’ meetings and stay engaged.

Assuming you have one on one meetings or courtesy meetings with PSC members it is also beneficial to meet them as a team and also for your project team to meet them.

Consider:

  • Introductory Meetings
  • Inviting the PSC (not just the Project Sponsor) to attend:
    • the project kick-off meeting
    • the various workshops (e.g. Planning, Estimating, Risk)
    • milestone celebration events (formal or informal)
    • reward and recognition events
    • formal project closure celebration
6. Are you confident that they all want to be on the PSC?

You need people on the PSC who are supportive, co-operative and make timely decisions. During your initial one on one meeting, you will almost certainly form an opinion on each PSC member. Don’t forget to make comments on your Stakeholder Register on how you are planning to engage with these specific PSC stakeholders.

If you have the confidence, it is worth discussing any concerns with your sponsor and trying to get changes?

7. Is your PSC ‘big-picture’ only or value-add?

On the assumption that we now have a PSC comprising people who believe in the project and wish to be helpful do they understand what you need from them? PSC’s who only want to see the top 5 risks, the top 3 accomplishments etc. are not really engaged at the level required although some organisations encourage this detached view. It is recommended that you encourage an engaged PSC who want to know the status of budget and schedule, but also ask about how you are handling changes, risks, issues, resources and how you are managing the project team and suppliers.

8. Does your PSC take more time than the agreed schedule, to provide formal approvals and/or decisions based on your recommendations?

When you planned your schedule, did you put some time in for obtaining approvals e.g. Project Plan? If expert judgement suggests it usually takes 4 weeks, there is no benefit in assuming that work can start immediately after publishing the Project Plan. It is recommended that a lag time be built into the schedule where approvals are required or alternatively place a task ‘Obtain Approval’ with xx duration and zero effort. If you know that it takes 4 weeks to obtain approval then use 4 weeks based on project experience. If the PSC say that is too much and they will approve within 1 week then the schedule should be changed with a documented assumption that it will take one week ‘based on meeting held on dd/mm/yy.’ If the approval takes more than 1 week then invoke change control.

Often a good way to get timely approval is to socialise the document and walk through it with selective PSC members and then arrange a meeting to obtain formal approval. Meeting preparation is everything and the ‘domino effect’ is very powerful.

If you rely on electronic approvals you may wait forever!

Another tip on this subject is to always have a Risk on the Risk Register that PSC approvals and decisions may take longer than agreed in project schedule. Politically place the Probability at Low but the Impact as High.

9. Does your PSC meet as planned or do you experience last minute cancellations and postponements?

If PSC’s meet as planned, at least there is structure and discipline, irrespective of outcomes.

There is nothing worse than the cancellation / postponement scenario. The committee steering the project are too busy to attend pre-arranged PSC meetings... Why? Help me understand! In this scenario you have prepared in advance, published the status report, written a small presentation and are hyped-up to go (haircut and best business attire) and then you get last-minute cancellation notice. If you have a PMO this should be reported to them but even with this action you most likely will not have a satisfactory resolution. It will depend upon PMO maturity and power.

It is recommended that your Project Organisation section in your Project Plan lists the PSC with name, title, contact numbers etc. It is further recommended that the first page of the Status Report also contains this list with date of last meeting. This is an auditable document, and without confrontation it documents the last time the PSC convened to review the project. This further underscores the need for the PSC to steer the project and assist you, the Project Manager.

10. Does your Project Sponsor – chair PSC, lead, drive and champion?

This is usually the Sponsor’s role and we should expect them to ensure no PSC cancellations or postponements but in reality, it is often they who cancel. Again, it is OK to voice your concerns not by email but face to face, after all it is this Sponsor who has entrusted you with the project. If they are not performing and giving you the support try the following. 'I know you have lots of important things on at the moment. Do you think you should delegate the Project Sponsorship responsibility to someone else?'

11. Is there an agenda sent out in advance of PSC Meetings?

If you leave it to others, sometimes there are no agendas and even worse; minutes of the previous PSC meetings get distributed at the next meeting. Why not offer to work with the Sponsor and you write the agenda and minutes? Whilst you must always ensure accuracy of reporting it does allow you to ensure key points that are important to you are formally documented with agreed action items and ‘required by’ dates. You can place the emphasis on what matters to you.

12. Do all PSC members attend every meeting? If not, why not?

If absence of an individual happens several times, what is the value of this person being on the PSC? Are you prepared to discuss your concerns with your Sponsor? Whilst it is acceptable to miss through illness or vacation failure to attend otherwise should not be tolerated.

13. Do PSC members sometimes send delegates? If so, are they prepared and do the delegates have the decision-making power?

If this happens consistently the Project Sponsor needs to show leadership and have discussion with the ‘absent’ PSC member or suggest the delegate be the replacement PSC member. Often delegates are ill-prepared and only directed to attend at the last minute thus providing no value to the PSC or the project.

The Project Sponsor may have so many items and issues that they don’t take notice of absences, so they may need a little reminder. This is why the relationship between the Sponsor and PM is so vital to successful projects.

Finally, on the subject of authority, how many times has a delegate agreed to a certain decision at a PSC meeting, only to be overruled by the formal PSC member at the next PSC meeting? This can send project backwards.

14. Do you ensure that you meet your Status Report deadlines and the report is of appropriate accuracy and completeness?

It is vitally important that the Project Manager portrays confidence and control and thus it is critical that the Status Report is published on time as it demonstrates your professionalism.

To enhance this image, stay focused on deliverables/accomplishments rather than effort. If there is nothing significant to report for a specific period state ‘Nothing significant to report’ rather than: 'The project team have worked extremely hard this period.'

15. Are you confident that PSC members have read your Project Status Report in advance?

Have you ever attended the PSC meeting as the Project Manager, when you could feel the warmth of members Status Reports that have just been printed and the first 5 minutes of the PSC Meeting were consumed by a rapid reading exercise by the participants? This is totally unacceptable especially as you sent the Project Status Report out well in advance of the meeting! What usually follows in this scenario is ‘Project Manager, would you talk us through the main points?’ This is a cop-out by the PSC but puts meeting control back in your court... be prepared.

If the PSC members are in-house or at least in close proximity why not print a copy for each person and hand deliver. The benefits are that they see you ‘in control’ and your subtle message is that you know they have a hard copy and there is no reason for them not to read it. You could walk through it with them to ensure there are no surprises at the next PSC Project Review Meeting. Also, you can use this face to face contact in what I call the ‘Columbo moment.’ This is where you could have the opportunity to say, 'Oh, I nearly forgot, I still don’t have that resource you promised me at the last meeting. It would be great if we could tell the PSC that your action item is closed.'

16. Does the PSC really review your project or just ask how the budget and the schedule are tracking?

Reflect on the value that the PSC are providing to you. Do they ask value -added questions based on their reading and understanding of your status report? How often do they ask about project team morale or your major project concerns? Do they delve into your mitigation strategy for a specific identified risk? Ask your Project Sponsor to take the lead here.

What we should not give the PSC are surprises. Bad news is OK and PSC’s should be mature enough to accept it, but surprises should not be accepted. If you feel that there is something that could be construed as a surprise, it is recommended you talk to PSC members in advance (notice talk not email) so that it will take any heat out of the formal PSC Project Status Meeting.

17. Does the PSC exert influence to try and get you to change your report?

This should never happen but does. At your initial meetings it should be stressed that the Status Report is the Project Manager and Teams domain and their call on the status. The PSC has the right to challenge the report, but not change it.

If the PSC do attempt to change your Project Status Report it is recommended that you refer them to their PSC roles and responsibilities and your responsibilities.

As a project management professional and in line with expected ethical behaviour, being pressured to, for example, change a project status from Red to Green or Yellow for political reasons is not acceptable project practice and unethical.

Again, the PMO should have a role to play here but sometimes they are the problem rather than the solution in aspects of reporting!

18. Do you feel that the PSC add value and are supportive or do they act like adversaries?

Depending upon your organisation, why not try to get yourself on the PSC. This can be achieved by adding yourself and offering to write the agenda and minutes (make life easy for the Project Sponsor). This is obviously easier if you have established a good rapport with the sponsor. If this is acceptable you then ensure the organisation charts show you as a PSC member. This engenders a sense of teaming rather than an adversarial environment.

19. Do PSC’s stay engaged, especially when the going gets tough or projects with higher priorities emerge?

If your project continues according to plan one of two things may happen:

  1. PSC members stay engaged because they want to be associated in what looks like is going to be a successful project
  2. PSC members lose enthusiasm because they feel everything is going well and they are not needed

If the project is not going according to plan, it is possible that:

  1. PSC members stay engaged as they want to assist you get the project back on track (this may be of a cooperative or adversarial nature)
  2. PSC members attempt to disassociate themselves from what they might perceive as a potential project failure (mud sticks by association!)
20. Does the PSC only want to see GREEN on projects or are they encouraging and supportive when you have used your professional judgement to call a project RED or YELLOW?

Many years ago, any Project Manager who put their project in Red or Yellow status was seen as a poor Project Manager. Thankfully this has changed as organisations have matured in project management practices. A Project Manager should be congratulated for having the courage to call the project Red or Yellow. Of course, if the environment is confrontational and threatening the chances are that the Project Manager will modify behaviour and call the project Green providing a disservice to the organisation. Ethically the Project Manager should call honestly and expect to be supported by the PSC (and PMO), but if such a call is ‘career limiting’ it is subject to abuse.

'What green is most appropriate this month – Emerald Green or Lime Green?'

21. Are the PSC Minutes written and distributed in a timely manner?

Late minutes are a sign of a tired and loose project.

Project Managers usually want action and the minutes of the PSC will usually contain actions for Project Manager and team but also PSC members and/or their groups. It is therefore important that the minutes are distributed, ideally within one working day of meeting. As previously mentioned, the Project Manager could offer to write the minutes and show the urgency by publishing them within one working day.

If you cannot write the minutes, discuss your concerns with the Project Sponsor if minutes are published late. Do not wait until this has happens several times. A good Project Manager should not accept tardiness by others and must always meet their own commitments i.e. Lead by example.

22. Do PSC members carry out their agreed action items in a timely manner?

This is difficult to ‘enforce’ if minutes are published late although you should expect that each PSC member is professional and notes their action items at the PSC meeting.

Sometimes the late minutes are similar to a get out clause. 'Oh, I was waiting for the minutes to be published before I took any action.'

Get PSC to own their action items in the same way you own yours.

Close

Don’t forget that a Project Manager or Project Director is selling confidence and by managing the Steering Committee well, you are likely to get cooperation and timely decision-making and approvals.

I trust the above comments and ideas are useful to you in reflecting on how you may be able to 'Steer your Project Steering Committee.'

PMBOK is the registered mark of the Project Management Institute, Inc.

First published . Last updated 12 Apr 2019. Disclaimer: The views, information, or opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the University of Newcastle and its employees.

About Terry Quanborough

Terry Quanborough has worked in the Information Technology industry for over 30 years, initially based in England, then New Zealand and Australia.

He has held Senior Executive positions in global Professional and Consulting Services organisations, with primary focus on Systems Integration and Program / Project Management including project governance. His career has included 25 years with major multinational IT corporations such as Digital Equipment Corporation and Compaq Computer Corporation, where he held several senior positions within the Asia Pacific Executive Team.

Terry has undertaken business assignments in most countries within Asia plus Mauritius, Australia, New Zealand, USA, Canada and UK.

He was Asia Pacific Director, Program Management Office for a multi-national organisation with specific responsibility for the strategy and health of the project portfolio across the region, plus project management competency and the project methods, processes, standards and tools. He was also the custodian/co-developer of the methodology and the project management training and development program. In addition, he drove the PMI® certification program for program and project managers and introduced the concept, then managed and delivered Project Management Universities across Asia Pacific. This model was subsequently rolled out on a worldwide basis.

Prior to that role, Terry was Manager, Australia Professional Services, a Project and Consulting Practice with a large base of client-facing project managers and consultants deployed throughout Australia. He was responsible for revenue, margin and client satisfaction.

Terry is a speaker at international project management conferences and seminars, and has written several Project Management related papers. He is a founder member of the Project Management Institute (PMI®) Sydney Chapter and served as a Board Director for 5 years and is a recipient of the PMI® Australia Chapters' “Distinguished Contribution Award”.

On a voluntary basis, Terry participates as leader or on-site visit team member for the PMI® Global Accreditation Centre for Project Management (GAC). The GAC supports the accreditation of University project management programs on a world-wide basis.

Terry specialises in Project Management and Consulting Services that include Project Reviews & Governance and also Program / Project Offices set-up and/or review with associated processes, methods and governance structures, sometimes using a build-operate-transfer model. He also conducts both public and in-house project management training programs.

Education and Professional Affiliations
  • Fellow of the Chartered Management Institute (FCMI) - United Kingdom
  • Graduate of the Melbourne Business School Executive Program, University of Melbourne, Australia
  • Graduate Diploma in Management Studies (DMS), Nottingham Trent University, England
  • Member of the Project Management Institute (PMI®)
  • Certified Project Management Professional (PMP®)
  • Diploma in Project Management (BSB51407)
  • Chartered Member of the British Computer Society – The Chartered Institute for IT (MBCS)
  • Chartered IT Professional (CITP)
  • IT Professionals New Zealand (MITP)

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