Who's driving?

Driving a car Who on your project will have the authority to make decisions at the most senior level? Who will get you access to the resources you require? Who will unblock problems and sign off the extra money the project needs? Elizabeth Harrin has the answer.

These are all functions of a project's steering group.

A steering group is made up of people who have an interest in the project: representatives from each of the key stakeholder communities, who meet on a regular basis to provide direction, authority to proceed and to decide on the strategy for the project.

A survey by the Centre for Complexity and Change at The Open University found that a third of project managers are involved in the decision making process but are not the sole decision maker themselves. So it's essential that steering groups are proactive in helping the project manager by considering recommendations and making decisions, so that the work is not held up while the project team wait for a clear steer on the way forward.

Steering groups are chaired by the project sponsor and generally meet once a month, although the project manager should be able to see any member of the group between meetings if necessary. However, just because a project has a steering group doesn't mean the group will be of value. Here are some of the issues caused by failing steering groups:

Steering group problem #1: No senior ownership

Symptoms: project manager brings recommendations to the table but the steering group fails to make decisions; decisions take a long time; decisions involve consulting other people not present during steering group meetings.

Your steering group is not made up of the right people. The decision makers on your project should be authoritative and have the ability to negotiate with other key departments in case of conflict. Without a clear route for (binding) decisions, you could find your project stalling at the most critical moments, as the stakeholders disagree amongst themselves and refuse to abide by each others decisions. 

Alternatively, the steering group could be made up of too many people. It's difficult to gain collective agreement with more than five or six people, so keep the group small. If, as project manager, you need to consult others, do so before the meeting and include their views in the recommendations you present to the steering group.

Steering group problem #2: No interest in the project

Symptoms: meetings get cancelled; project manager cannot get time with project sponsor or steering group members.

Again, your steering group is not made up of the right people. Why are they so disinterested? Somebody in the organisation must have an interest in this project, or it would never have started.

The initiator may have moved on, and his or her successor may be unwilling to support the project for any number of reasons. A lack of interest in the project at senior level is a sign that company strategy has moved on. Perhaps this project is no longer required, but no one has yet been brave enough to cancel it.

If your steering group is unwilling to provide the required direction for the project, suggest that the project is stopped. If there are people out there who strongly believe that the project should continue, then they will come out of hiding and stand up for it.

If no one challenges your recommendation, then nobody cares enough for the work to continue. There is no point working on a project that serves no purpose, so bow out gracefully and support the project team in the transition to new, more relevant, projects.

Steering group problem #3:  Willing, but useless

Symptoms: meetings are not structured; steering group members are enthusiastic but do not follow through on delegated actions; roles and responsibilities are unclear.

It sounds as if everyone believes this project is a good idea, but no one really knows what they are doing or why they are doing it. Address the 'why' first: spell out the benefits for each steering group member.

The sales director will be more focused on completing her actions if she understands that the web application will make it easier for sales staff to process orders out in the field. The compliance manager will make his team available to help if he understands how the new software tracking system will monitor licence usage across the company. 

Then address the 'what'. As a project manager, manage upwards to add some structure to the meetings. Document the terms of reference for the group, with roles and responsibilities for each member. Circulate an agenda, with the agreement of the sponsor. 

Take minutes, or co-opt someone from the programme office to help. Ensure the minutes are sent out, and actions have clearly identified owners and a date by when they need to be complete. Then ring round all the steering group members in advance of the next meeting to see if they have completed what they said they would. 

People are more likely to complete tasks if they understand the consequences of not doing them: if the project is important to them, they will do what they need to do to keep it on track. If time is the problem, suggest they delegate the actions to a member of their team, although they should still attend the meetings themselves.

Steering group problem #4: No sponsor

Symptoms: no one takes overall accountability; no one tracks benefits; no one will take ownership of the solution once it is in production.

Typically, the sponsor is the person who came up with the idea for the project, holds the budget and will adopt the solution once it is live and moves out of the project arena. He or she is the customer for the project. An absent sponsor is often the result of  'slopey shoulders'.

Being a sponsor is being responsible, and not everyone wants responsibility. 'I think it's a great idea, but you should champion it,' is the refrain. Again, as project manager, you need to manage upwards. Choose who should be sponsor (or take advice from senior managers) and take that person under your wing.  Help the sponsor understand how the role supports the project team, and how responsibility isn't a scary thing.

People in the role of sponsor also suffer from having many demands on their time and your project may not be top of the list. If they don't know what it is they have to do, you can be sure they won't make the time to find out. The project manager should explain what is expected from them, and help them achieve that. You may also have to educate them in the technical details of the project to enable them to make appropriate decisions.

A project's steering group should be there to cut through political power games, which can significantly delay (or stall or close down) a project. Don't put up with a failing steering group - as it only takes one important issue that isn't handled properly before your project starts careering off the rails.
Elizabeth Harrin is a project manager at Spire Healthcare. She is a member of PROMS-G and author of the BCS book Project Management in the Real World.

January 2008