IPMA International Project Management Association
20 November 2017 / 8:08

Steering Committees for project-oriented organisations

There is not much literature about steering committees related to projects in organisations. Maybe that´s the reason why too many project-oriented organisations fail to establish steering committees that perform. Basically, a steering committee is a decision-making body composed of several people. However, it is not always clear who should sit on such a committee and what the tasks, authorities and responsibilities are. This depends on the type of steering committee, and there are several types…

An organisation could establish a steering committee for a single project (or programme). This type of steering committee is temporary and will be closed down after the sign-off. The steering committee should be composed of leaders with decision-making authorities regarding resources and know-how needed in the project. Typically, members are the project sponsor and the functional department heads affected by the project. The project steering committee outlines the governance for the project and decides on important matters, e.g. the project manager, the business case for the project, the project management plan, the resources assigned to the project, change requests, the preliminary as well as the final approval of the deliverables. In order to perform the tasks, a steering committee needs to receive all necessary information from the project and meets on a regular basis in order to perform its tasks. The responsibility of the project steering committee is to ensure the benefits realisation through the project, which is not just to stay in time and in budget, but to achieve an outcome that is useful to the organisation. This includes resource deployment and utilisation to the benefit of the project AND the organisation. The authority is to get all information necessary, to oversee and decide all matters related to the project. The authority of the project steering committee may be limited by a higher-level authority, so it needs to clarify its role before the kick-off. Project-oriented organisations may already have a standard role description for such a committee and the Governance of Projects, Programmes and Portfolios may guide in this respect. A special type of a project steering committee might be one that spans across multiple organisations. However, I do not want to deepen this one here…

Another type of steering committee in a project-oriented organisation is the one that oversees multiple projects or a portfolio. This steering committee is permanent and involves leaders from the part of the organisation the portfolio is concerned with. It might be the business area leader together with all department heads or other groups of leaders. The overall Governance Systems should define who is sitting on such a committee. However, the portfolio steering committee defines the governance for the portfolio and outlines the governance for projects and programmes. One of the key tasks for the portfolio steering committee is to decide which projects and programmes are undertaken and which priority every component of the portfolio has. The criteria for this choice could be the strategic fit of each component, the contribution to the organisation´s objectives, economic value-add and risks. In case there is no additional project steering committee for each single project, the overarching committee needs to take over the role and responsibilities described above. Sometime it makes sense to delegate the steering of a single project to a lower project steering committee. Together with the delegation it defines the roles and responsibilities of such a single project steering committee and assigns people to such a steering committee. It is important to have one person which sits on both committees and thus links the decision making processes between both levels. The authorities of this high-level steering encompasses information flows from all projects through reporting, decision authorities regarding the selection and prioritisation as well as resource allocation to all projects. The responsibilities of this steering committee are more related to the success of all project activities in (a part of) the organisation.

Finally, large organisations may also have a strategic steering committee. It sits at the top of the organisation and encompasses typically the board. It certainly has the highest decision making authority and defines the governance for projects, programmes and portfolios as integral part of the Corporate Governance. The role and responsibilities are nearly the same as described above for the portfolio steering committee, additionally the strategic steering committee may also be concerned with the investment decisions, implemented through projects and programmes. It should align all project-oriented activities with the organisation´s overall vision, mission, strategy and ensure that the intended deliverable, outcomes and benefits are achieved. Furthermore, it should take care for the performance of all project-oriented activities, setting respective goals, monitoring and controlling as well as supporting continuous improvement activities. A baseline for the activities in this regard could be the IPMA Organisational Competence Baseline (IPMA OCB®). In small and medium-sized organisation the portfolio and the strategic steering committee could be the same, this may depend on the number of projects and programmes in the portfolio or the number of different portfolio types in the organisation or the complexity of the organisation itself.

The steering committees may be supported by a specialized office, for the project steering committee this is typically a Project Office (PO), for the programme steering committee it´s a Programme Office (PgO), for the portfolio steering committee it could be a Portfolio Office (PfO) or a Project Management Office (PMO), the strategic steering committee could finally be supported by an Enterprise PMO (EPMO). These offices have no decision-making authorities, they (just) support the decision-making, e.g. through monitoring and controlling project-oriented activities, through reporting and facilitation.

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Reinhard Wagner

Author of this post

Reinhard Wagner has been active for more than 30 years in the field of project- related leadership, in such diverse sectors as Air Defense, Automotive Engineering, and Machinery, as well as various not-for-profit organizations. As a Certified Projects Director (IPMA Level A), he has proven experience in managing projects, programmes and project portfolios in complex and dynamic contexts. He is also an IPMA Certified Programme and Portfolio Management Consultant, and as such supports senior executives in developing and improving their organizational competence in managing projects. For more than 15 years, he has been actively involved in the development of project, programme and portfolio management standards, for example as Convenor of the ISO 21500 “Guidance on Project Management” and the ISO 21503 “Guidance on Programme Management”. Reinhard Wagner is Past President of IPMA and Chairman of the Council, Honorary Chairman of GPM (the German Project Management Association), as well as Managing Director of Tiba Managementberatung GmbH.

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