Steering committees are an increasingly popular type of corporate governance body. These oversight and advisory committees generally include a small group of leaders from different departments or areas of the business. They regularly meet to supervise the direction and course of a portfolio or initiative.

A lot of project-oriented organizations have set up dedicated steering groups to provide guidance to their key portfolio of projects. Here’s how a project portfolio steering committee works and how to create one.

Role of a Steering Committee

Let’s start by getting a common misconception out of the way: a steering committee is NOT a Project Management Office. In fact, large and/or sophisticated project organizations often have both a PMO and one or several portfolio steering committee(s), all playing different roles. A steering committee shouldn’t interfere in the project management process or encroach upon the program/project management prerogatives of the PMO. Instead, the committee will support project management professionals to help ensure that they are working towards the strategic directions defined at the company level.

A project portfolio steering committee may, for example:

  • Set the strategic direction of key projects, prioritize and/on reprioritize initiatives
  • Act as a champion and sponsor for key projects to promote them throughout the wider organization
  • Provide advice and expert input on business issues (budgeting, hiring, marketing, and so forth)
  • Resolve conflicts or arbitrate between different stakeholders
  • Monitor the quality and outcomes of the project management process and adjust accordingly
  • Refine or expand on policies and governance procedures
  • Identify business risks to the portfolio and come up with ideas and strategies to mitigate

Steering Committee Business Value

Although the members of the steering committee typically don’t perform the action they recommend or prescribe, such a committee can create significant business and project value. Their distance from daily concerns and operations enables them to look at things with fresh eyes and bring valuable perspectives and insights to the management of the portfolio. However, in order to maximize the value and benefits of having a project portfolio steering committee, organizations should make sure that their committee doesn’t evolve into a bureaucratic entity that increases procedural and administrative overhead unnecessarily. Where a steering committee coexists with a PMO and/or with other management or governance bodies, it is also essential to make sure their roles and actions are not redundant with each other.

Make Up of a Project Portfolio Steering Committee

The members of a project portfolio steering committee usually have considerable stake in the portfolio outcomes. They are typically senior managers or executives, board members even, department heads with appropriate decision-making authority, experts and authority figures (either internal or external to the business).

This is the rule of thumb. The particular group makeup will depend on the scope, nature and objectives of that portfolio. According to the projects’ types and goals, it may make sense to involve scientific experts, or marketing professionals, or financial profiles, etc.

Project management professionals are generally not permanent members of a project portfolio steering committee, although the Project Management Officer or the Portfolio Manager might be included, if only on a case-by-case basis.

Here are a few pieces of advice for organizations that are considering setting up a project portfolio steering committee:

  • Keep it small. The efficiency and the value of your committee will hinge upon its ability to make fast decisions. Hence the imperative to limit the number of members and keep the panel comparatively small. This can be a challenge when dealing with large portfolios with key projects involving multiple departments that all feel they should be represented.
  • Pick the right people. Expertise, authority and clout are not the only factors to be taken into account. What makes a great steering committee member is also the individual’s personality. It is of equal importance to build a balanced team and to select people that will be able to work with each other successfully. Finally, the leaders that’ll be invited to sit on the project portfolio steering committee should demonstrate great soft skills, and more specifically great communication abilities.

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Valerie Zeller

Valerie is Sciforma Chief Marketing Officer. Main interests: digital transformation, change management, strategy execution. Send your thoughts @valeriezeller