Digital Steering Committee

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FIR On Strategy with Andrea VascellariThis is part of a series of posts that explores the “Adaptive Digital Strategy Framework” , an operative guide that I created to plan, execute and manage online strategy programs more effectively and efficiently. Each of post of this series comes with an audio podcast in which you will find the audio version of the post with additional audio commentary about the discussed topics. The name of the podcast is “FIR On Strategy with Andrea Vascellari”.

It’s never easy to define the scope of a project and steer it in the right direction to satisfy the expectations of stakeholders and partners. A steering committee can help. In this post/cast we talk about what a steering committee is and what are its primary functions. Then, since this is a podcast about digital strategy, we ‘ll look at a common problem that people face when dealing with online projects and a 4 step process that you can use to solve it.

What’s a steering committee?

A steering committee is a group made up of high-level stakeholders who provide guidance on certain key issues related to a project. They are usually present in large private organizations but I’ve also worked a lot with steering committees in the public sector (i.e. local government).

A steering committee is not a Center of Excellence. The members of the committee don’t have to be digital mavens. Based on my experience it’s ok if they have only a basic understanding of how networked technology and social systems interact with one another, what’s important is that they:

  • Understand the impact that the project can have on the major stakeholders.
  • Represent their interests of the different stakeholders and partners involved.
  • Have a broad understanding of project management issues.
  • Are genuinely interested in the project.

Primary functions

The steering committee supports the project management team on different functions. Based on my experience, I prepared a list of the top 10 so that you can get a pretty good idea on what the steering committee role is, but you can add or ignore some of these functions depending on the nature of the project and the industry you work in (private or public). The role of a steering committee is to advise and support the project management team:

  1. Ensuring the project’s objectives and outcomes meet the requirements.
  2. Monitoring and reviewing the project at regular meetings.
  3. Helping balance conflicting priorities and resources. (this is where their project managemet skills come in handy…)
  4. Suggesting actions required for the successful implementation of the project.
  5. Reviewing the work of sub-committees as well as the project management for conformity. (big projects might have subcomites… + steerting cometee is the refernce point to realiy for the project managemetn team that usually is enitrely absorbed byt the porjct and can easily lose track of “reality”)
  6. Participating in the planning considering feasibility of the project, ideas and issues raised.
  7. Suggesting corrective actions in the case of delays in the implementation of the project activities.
  8. Reviewing the project scope as unexpected issues force changes to be considered.
  9. Providing policy direction to the project.
  10. Fostering positive communication regarding progress and outcomes.

Keep in mind

They run this part of the project, not you. You only define, plan and support them.

Essentially this boils down to good project management but I can’t get tired of reminding it because I’ve noticed that often strategist and project managers tend to over-control the steering committee. That’s a mistake.

“Yes but most steering committees think they’re there to ‘control the project’!”

Of course, sometimes they do. But you know what? Steering committees tend to ‘control’ the project when nobody else is doing. If you are a good project manager/strategist/communicator focus on doing well your part and then respect them, empower them, trust them and let them shine. Remember that you get steering committees involved because of their experience.

They look at what has to be done for your project to succeed, what roadblocks exist that have to be removed, what other internal or external events need to be taken into account and managed to ensure success.

They ‘steer’ the project towards the successful achievement of your business and communication objectives. Steering committees are a precious resource. Don’t forget it.

The problem with online projects and how to solve it

Steering committee members usually have good expertise in their fields but they don’t always get how this digital and hyperconnected world works. When you bring to the table an online project I’ve noticed that most members don’t always realize what their role is. They need to be enlightened about what they are supposed to do.

Where to start from?

This is a four-step process to make the steering committee members aware of their role:

  1. Before the project is underway, run a short survey to understand their level of understanding of the digital space in relation to the project.
  2. Provide the information and/or training needed to bring them up to speed.
  3. Present them the project and then ask them what could prevent it from being successful. The list of potential issues they come up with defines their main area of focus.
  4. Help them plan appropriate actions. Take the list of primary functions that I listed above and, based on the defined area of focus, make the members think through them. Examples:
  • Function: Ensuring the project’s objectives and outcomes meet the requirements => Are the project’s objectives ok, or they should be modified based on some of the issues we listed? If the objectives are not ok, what’s needed? For example if there’s a new situation you are facing they can use their expertise to select the members to create a “temporary governance team” etc. so you see how things are starting to click now, how we are gradually connecting the dots with previous episodes.
  • Function: Monitoring and reviewing the project at regular meetings => How often should we meet to review the project?
  • etc.

The steering committee members are there to help direct the project successfully but they need guidance… a lot of guidance. Be prepared to make them think. Remember? You are a digital strategist… of course you have to be on top of your digital knowledge, but most importantly you must be able to “manage” a digital project.

Over to you

What’s above is very much framed by my experience, and the 4 step process that I shared with you can be useful for steering committees that are working for the first time on online projects and especially for members that have never been part of a steering committee before.

What functions would you add to the list of functions that I shared? How do you help your committee perform better? What have I missed? Let me know in the comments.

Andrea @vascellari
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