Guest Blog – Peter Rappange – Project teams and steering committees – Trick or Treat?

I promised a while ago that I would get Peter Rappange, who is running the Programme and Portfolio Management practice for us, to start blogging to his views, knowledge and templates. He just did, and I am happy to publish his first blog. You can follow him on his own blog site.

Here is his guest blog, about the subject closest to his professional heart: how to run or help organisations run successful projects.

In all my years as project manager I have on many occasions experienced the interaction with steering committees as a disguised blessing in the sky. Often I have wondered why on some occasions this was a smooth ride and on others a troublesome relationship. It is not that I have overnight dramatically changed my performance in executing projects. So what is the magic behind a good relationship. Over the years I have become reasonably skilled in the execution of projects and thus been given bigger projects to execute with more challenges until finally I ended up managing large global programmes. One thing was sure: with the start of every new venture it was an uncertainty how the relationship between the project team and the steering committee developed. With the years and the many interactions I have had with Steering committees in different forms, sizes and complexity it started to dawn on me: a good relationship had something to do with openness in your communication, predictability and respect. If you are open in your communication and predictable in the results and outcomes of your actions you will gain respect. With respect you earn the right to be listened to and you will notice that your advise will be followed. I refer to this as the Kiwi/Melon model. Both look nice and green on the outside, but if you cut them in half one is still green and the other : BRIGHT RED. So don’t become the melon by trying to hide the issues but be a Kiwi and show the reality. That way you become trustworthy and people will start to follow your advice.

So what does this word predictability mean in relation to projects. It starts very simple : If you explain a Steering committee what they can expect from the project and agree the role they have to play in the interacting with the project you start to create a situation of mutual understanding. Key in this relationship is that the project is predictable in their behavior towards the steering committee, in other words be the KIWI. This is more easily said than done. Predictability requires a certain level of structure and discipline of both parties. This is not an invite to overwhelm an organisation with all kind of project methodologies etc. but a drive towards agreement around a few basic principles. Don’t get me wrong I am a keen fan of project methodologies , provided they are applied with intelligence.

What are the dimensions on which we can govern a project

What can the steering committee expect from the project team

What can the project expect from the steering committee

How do you ‘steer’ a project

An important aspect for each project is to have a certain level of predictability. Nobody likes surprises like late calls on delays or budget overruns which require ad hoc decision making. I have found the following checklist a good aid in assessing project on their structure.

Does a vision exist of the future state or end goal after the project is completed. In other words do we know what we have to deliver and against what level of quality

Do we have explored and documented all options to succeed our goal

Do we have the governance defined in which the project need to operate

Do we have a business case defined against which we can measure and steer the project – This also helps to quantify the benefits

Do we know the cost (including the effort required) and timescale against which we need to deliver the scope

Are we aware of all the risks and issues

Do we have a clear vision on the dependencies of other initiative’s in the organisation to be able to set the right priorities

With the above elements in place the project team is able to report on a regular basis progress and have a meaningful interaction with both the project sponsor and steering committee around the way the project is progressing. This brings me to another topic I want to raise some awareness around namely the interaction between project and steering committee.

Projects are managed on a day to day basis by project managers. Nobody disputes this (I hope). But even with the best of the project managers in place, each project still requires supervision from within the organisation for one simple reason: projects don’t run in isolation and are often dependent or influenced by decisions made organizational units who may not have the project objectives as their foremost primary target. Therefore a balancing act is required to match the project objectives against the strategic and tactical initiatives that take place in the organisation. I have come across an interesting article in which this dilemma was described as the ‘devils act ‘ I have taken the liberty to expand a bit on this model as I find it a good illustration on the challenges a steering committee faces.

The concept of the model is to maintain a constant state of equilibrium. To do so steering committees need to ask themselves constantly:

What is the most important we want to achieve:

  • On Time delivery ?
  • 100% Quality ?
  • As cheap as possible?
  • As safe as possible?

This without losing the sight of the Business case !!

The project manager can’t answer these questions. He or she may have an opinion but ultimately it is the steering committees responsibility to provide clarity and steer the direction towards the projects end goal. The project manager’s task is to provide the data for the steering committee to make these decisions. Hence the importance of the point I made earlier about being predictableas a project.

Therefore it is important to understand how project teams interact with steering committees and vice versa. Much of this has to do with the way we provide information and how we take decisions. Somebody once told me if you – as a project manager – leave a steering committee meeting without having at least agreed on action items for each member of the SC it wasn’t a good meeting. The point he tried to stress is that participating doesn’t mean the role of individual SC members is to sit by and listen, but to play an active role in removing barriers for the project.

There is a lot of documentation around what constitutes a good membership of a steering committee so I will not bore you with these details. What for me important is that people realize the triangular relationship between the sponsor, the project team and the steering committee, each with their own unique role to play but together they share an ultimate common goal – a successful realization of the business case.

To help focus the debate how this interaction should look like, I use a simple model which I consider a good aid to explain the engagement between project and steering committee. The concept is rather simple you split the debate in two parts to maintain focus. You start to concentrate on the past and provide a ‘loocback’ based on historic data the project tracks. The duration of this look back period depends on the frequency of engagement with the SC ( I would recommend a 4 – 6 week cycle depending on the duration of a project). Important during the review is to try and assess if you can detect a trend in the performance of the project in realizing it’s objectives.

The second part of the debate is the project ‘lookout’ . Now the focus is on the future and we try to understand what the project need to achieve, look at the impact of potential emerging changes and risk and an assessment if the current project performance will guarantee a successful achievement of future targets.

If we try to adopt

I cannot guarantee an instant success but only hope that by adopting these basic rules we might even end up with a situation where we perceive a steering committee engagement as a pleasant experience instead of a blessing in disguise.

I invite you to do the same and share with me your experiences be it positive or negative.

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