The Role of the Steering Committee
By Demian Entrekin
Project Portfolios require direction, and whether you have a formal process or an informal process, the shape and trajectory of the portfolio is driven by the steering committee. The committee may have one person on it, or representatives from several departments. It may have 3 members and it may have 30. No matter how the committee is composed, it serves a purpose. The questions are, What purpose should it serve? and How should it function? This is where things get a little tricky.
The challenges appear immediately upon understanding one key fact: the steering committee is composed of human beings. For those of us who like the predictability and consistency of machines or formulas, people present a peculiar challenge. They are not predictable. When you get several people together at the same time, the predictability worsens. When you call them the members of a committee, things can get downright weird. If you have diligently read your Kafka and your Orwell, you will at least have a literary sense of what I’m talking about.
In a Project Portfolio Management (PPM) context, one of the key aspects of managing the portfolio is the composition and role of the steering committee. Who is on it? What does it do? What is its scope? Does it make decisions or only recommendations? If it doesn’t make decisions, who does? Who has the titular power? Who has the real power? Who knows what they’re talking about? Who just knows the acronyms? Does the committee have access to the right information? Are the members clear about their role? Are they resumé stuffers or are they problem solvers? The answers to these questions are not easy nor are they obvious.
But there is a role that precedes the steering committee. That role is the role of the person (or the persons) who establish the committee. Who are those folks and what are they trying to accomplish? You see, that is where it starts – someone forms the committee. I have written consistently over the years that the key to any technology solution is People, Process and Solution Design in that order. You start with the key people, and usually their job requires picking the rest of the people. This is where the proverbial game is won or lost.
Which brings us back to the steering committee. Let me give the term its proper formatting: the Steering Committee. Someone, or some small team, will establish the Steering Committee and will create the rules, expectations, guidelines, etc. At that point, everything changes. Power and authority will have been given names and roles and a place-and-time to meet. I certainly don’t want to say that there is no going back, because there is, but I will say that the formation of the Steering Committee sets certain things in motion that are difficult to stop.
Demian is the CTO of Innotas. As founder and CEO, Entrekin oversaw marketing, product development, sales and services for the company. Today, he focuses on strategic product direction. Prior to Innotas, Entrekin co-founded Convoy Corporation and was Chief Architect of its initial products. In that role, Entrekin helped the company lead the middleware market with an annual growth rate of 670 percent and played an instrumental role in Convoy’s subsequent acquisition by New Era Networks in 1999. A recognized thought leader in Project Portfolio Management, Entrekin has published numerous papers on PPM and his blog (PPM Today) explores current issues related to successful PPM implementation. During his 18 year career, Demian has assumed leadership roles as a consultant and as an entrepreneur, delivering commercial and corporate database applications. Demian holds a B.A. in English from UCLA and an M.A. in English from San Francisco State University.