Do You Really Need a Project Steering Committee?

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Categories: Facilitation

By Lynda Bourne

Far too many sponsors, executives and project managers waste far too much time in ineffective steering committee meetings or project/program control board meetings (both referred to as PCB in this post).

The first key question for the organization’s governance team to consider is whether there is any need for a PCB. In most cases, provided the organization has well-trained and effective sponsors, there is no need for a PCB.

When deciding if the costs of a PCB are warranted, consider the following questions:

  • Is the project/program large by the standards of the organization?
  • Is the project/program more complicated or more complex (these concepts are different) than the normal projects undertaken by the organization?
  • Are the risks associated with the project/program higher than normal?

If the answer to any two of the above questions is affirmative, a PCB is probably warranted. If only one answer is affirmative, it is probably sufficient to appoint an experienced and committed sponsor, but the risks, costs and stakeholder attitudes need to be considered.

If the project is business-as-usual, there should be no need for a PCB. The organization’s normal governance, surveillance, project management and stakeholder engagement processes should be sufficient. The most cost-effective PCBs are the ones you don’t have!


Making the PCB Efficient

If a PCB is needed, no meeting should take longer than 30 minutes. The costs of running a PCB are in the range of $2,000 to $5,000 per hour (sometimes more), and the organization needs to recoup value from each meeting.

This objective is achievable, but the PCB needs designing and managing so that it is cost- and process-efficient. The design and management functions are best assigned to either the portfolio management office or an executive level project management office (PMO). 

The key elements in designing the PCB are:

  • Every member of the PCB is appointed for a specific reason and the members know why they are appointed, what is expected of them and what to expect from the PCB processes.
  • The relationship between the PCB and the change management processes is clearly defined.
  • The relationship between the PCB and the key project stakeholders is understood. The primary function of the PCB is to champion the project and help maximize its value to the organization.
  • PCB meetings only occur when decisions are required or a formal discussion is necessary; there are no time-wasting monthly meetings. Routine communication between the project manager, the sponsor and the PCB members is designed to deal with business-as-usual information flows and general oversight. There should be no surprises for anyone, ever!
  • Communication with each PCB member is timely and effective. Each member receives clear, concise and informative briefing packs in a timely manner prior to the meeting.
  • Questions or additional information requests are communicated to the project/program manager and the sponsor in adequate time to allow proper responses to be developed and circulated to all of the PCB prior to the meeting. (It’s not the job of a PCB to test the project manager with left field questions during the meeting.)
  • Meetings finish on time and have minutes circulated promptly. All decisions are logged, referenced and promptly communicated to all affected parties. The key responsibility of the PCB is to make timely decisions on matters that affect the organization (not the day-to-day running of the project).

Developing PCBs that work efficiently does require the PMO responsible for the process to develop coaching and advocacy skills in addition to the PCB processes and procedures.

New PCB members will need coaching in their roles. Project managers will need supervising to ensure effective, timely and complete information is made available to the PCB, to ensure proper governance processes are followed, and to ensure there are no surprises in either direction by connecting the executive decision-makers on the PCB to the project/program delivery teams.

None of this is rocket science. But if implemented effectively, this advice will lead to projects and programs that keep progressing with open communication and efficient decision-making. This will make both the project sponsor and the project manager’s life easier and more productive, generating increased value for the organization.

How effective are your steering committees or project control boards?

Posted by Lynda Bourne on: July 09, 2016 10:38 PM | Permalink

Comments (14)

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Great post about one of the not usual topics about project manager practitioners are talking about (at far as I know). What I found along the years is this topic is too complex to deal with from definition to implementation. In my opinion, organizational culture is the key here. You stated points that people like me have faced each day in lot of quit different types or organizations. Somebody inside the organization has to work on organizational culture (as a component of enteprise architecture) and in my case the business analyst is the role to do that.

Great information. From my experience with the companies I have worked for since the beginning of my career, this questions had many answers. The size of the company is really important. I used to work for small companies (<100 employees) and there was no culture of structured decision making. Only Management meetings were held once a week to discuss and decide about projects status as well as business as-usual activities.
I have been working in larger international companies over the past 20 years and there was here a culture of efficient governance for both on-going activities and projects. We (projects managers) have the obligation to integrate a "Governance Setup" subproject in all our project plans. The purpose of this Governance Setup project is to establish an appropriate project governance aligned with the company wide Governance model. This has been mandatory for both internal and Customer projects.
So yes we held Project Steering Commitees but with practices "efficiency oriented".

Thanks for the feedback Sergio and Philippe. I agree culture and the way it manifests in processes has a lot to do with the efficient, or inefficient governance of projects. But we should not confuse god and effective governance with the holding of steering committee meetings. If the committee is not being asked to make multi$thousand decisions every meeting where there are significantly different options to choose between is it valuable?

In our case, is not about money, is about value which is the point to take into account to gain organizational survival. We use "manage by value" method and Steering Commitee must be there to take decisions about kill/hold/stop initiatives. Obviously, we have a process defined about the topics that deserves the Steering Commitee consideration.

Good point Sergio - money is only a small part of value but the question still remains for may organisations what's moe valuable - having 6 senior managers in a room for 2 hours or having them doing the job they are paid to do managing their part of te organisation? 'Kill/hold/stop' decisions definitely are a PCB responsibility but if these occur more than two or three times in the life of a project something is seriously wrong.

I undertand your point Lynda and how not to say that I fully agree with you. If not, I will be fired from my job indeed (hehehehehe)

Agree that far to many PCBs are not efficient and should be focused. If project communication with sponsors and other executives is sufficient to support the project, support the project manager and makes sure that the expected benefits are achieved, there might be no need for a PCB at all.

In my environment this is not the case: sponsors do not understand their role, executives work against projects in the background, the project manager does not know how or where to escalate, and projects continue failing to stay aligned with business needs and loose contact with their purpose. We are at maturity level 2-3.

That is why I strongly promote PCBs as a key tool for every significant project: they force all key stakeholders to be involved, solve issues, understand risks, decide on options. They force the sponsor to engage. It is a step on the way to maturity in PM, maybe when the organization is at level 4 or 5, we might skip this tool.

Your situation is very common Thomas, but using a PCB to resolve the issue is simply treating the symptoms. The real challenge is to cure the 'illness' by starting a drive from the very top to improve organisational governance (particularly culture) that will support increased levels of PPM maturity. It is possible - the UK government has been working on this for years and the Infrastructure and Projects Authority (IPA) seems to be having a good effect. their latest report is at:

Hi Lynda,

I checked the IPA report and it seems they do independent assurance reviews which is an important part of portfolio management and health.

PCBs have another focus, they are meant to improve the chances of a project or program and serve governance and stakeholder engagement purposes for that project. They also design the power structures (together with the orgchart) for projects and enable quick decision support.

In a recent study of CSFs for 400 German projects, they found that the 3 most effective factors were all supported by PCBs: conflict resolution, project organization and organizational change management.

So, while I agree that many PCBs are overdoing it, I still think PCBs are mandatory and useful for most projects. This is supported by the relevant PMI standards and guidelines. A medicine taken in too high doses can be lethal, the right balance is important.

My original proposition Thomas was if a project was unusual or high risk (and this would certainly include stakeholder risks) there may well be a role for a PCB. However is the project is 'business as usual' why do you need a committee of executives sitting around a table when a few robust business systems and an effective Sponsor can deliver better and more consistent outcomes for a far lower overhead?

As a generalisation, most projects currently have steering committees or PCBs, and most projects run over time and budget. Simply having a PCB does not correlate with success.

Well Lynda, your original post describes a good PCB, I agree to that.

The point of of our disagreement is rather about when such a PCB should be defined and when not. In my experience horizon, bringing in well defined PCBs helps to improve project and organizational performance. I did not hear about an organization which improved in PM by or while getting rid of PCBs.

If we have a reader new to the profession, I would think he or she should not assume PCBs are optional.

If you or your organization is not yet top notch in PM, you should definitely consider to establish PCBs, like Lynda described them above.

Agree Thomas! :-)

Great Post!

Thanks for the great post. PCBs are currently used as the exception rather than the rule in my organization, but are certainly considered for each project.

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