Optimus Think

Three Common Killers of Steering Committees


And how to avoid them

Steering committees work most of the time, but when they fail, the results can be disastrous; wasted money, conflicts of interest and missed deadlines are a few of the problems that can come up. Are you willing to take the risk?

Is it better not to have a Steering Committee at all? The answer is no. The right Steering Committee can be a powerful mechanism to successfully drive complex initiatives. Many of our clients effectively use Steering Committees as the key decision-making body to champion large change programs such as restructuring and realignment of resources and processes.

With the right people around the table, your Steering Committee can almost guarantee success. But how do you know if you have the right team? You may be surprised to hear that picking experienced leaders and subject matter experts is not always good enough.

Over the years, a number of steering committee silent —and not so silent— killers have been identified. Here are three issues to watch out for, and how you can successfully avoid them:

1. The Dominator Effect

Steering Committees need leadership, and leaders often have strong personalities. When strong personalities begin to dominate Steering Committee agendas, projects can be put at risk. The problem with the dominator effect is twofold:

  1. The steering committee’s direction becomes more slanted towards the dominators personal preferences.
  2. Valuable input and perspectives from other members never make it to the table.

As the dominator takes over the Steering Committee other participation will begin to drop off. What’s the point in attending meetings if you’re not heard? In this case, the Steering Committee remains in name only.

The Solution: Use Shared Leadership

The co-lead model has proven effective to balance perspective and help prevent the dominator effect. Ideally your co-leads will bring very different perspectives and leadership styles to the table to balance things out. In some instances, even a tri-lead model can be effective for large and complex initiatives.

2. Hidden Compromises

Steering Committee members aren’t always what they appear to be. Members are usually chosen by the areas they represent in a checklist type style. It may sound counterintuitive, but having balanced representation can be problematic. Members come to the table with perspectives that are driven by their vested interests.

For example, during a restructuring exercise, the Steering Committee can disintegrate into winners and losers; those who got their way and those who gave up. In the end, the ultimate loser is the organization.

The Solution:  Involve Non-Biased Members

Identify members who do not have a vested interested in the outcomes of the project itself. This could be a finance person for a technology project or a product manager in an HR project. The neutral member will not get lost in the details or have their own agenda. They can contribute by challenging the bias of others, and helping ensure balanced participation and achieving results.

3. Puppet Mastery

For some, believe it or not, a Steering Committee is like a stage. Power plays are made behind the scenes. Deals are cut before meetings are held. You can almost see the strings being pulled in the meetings. Suddenly, Steering Committee meetings begin to get cancelled, and members become disengaged. Solutions lack vital information and perspectives. The puppets don’t enjoy having their strings pulled and simply walk away.

The Solution:  Establishing the Rules of Engagement

Having clear ground rules for the committee is critical. We recommend that Steering Committee members agree on things such as:

  • How decisions are made
  • How participation will be managed
  • What happens when there is disagreement / conflict
  • What happens between Steering Committee meetings

Bonus Solution:  Outside Facilitation

Some projects are so controversial and political that the Steering Committee cannot function objectively. Bringing in professional facilitators adds a critical dimension of neutrality and a focus on achieving objectives, because they relentlessly drive the committee towards achieving its objectives while skillfully managing stakeholder needs concurrently.

The Take Away

Putting a Steering Committee in place is not good enough. Don’t gamble unnecessarily on the success of your initiative. Strategically structure your committee to have the right leadership model based on the personalities around the table. Build objectivity into your membership and take the time to get everyone in the same boat before the committee sets sails and starts steering.

Optimus Think