Failing Projects – Ineffective Steering Boards

Projects fail for lots of reasons. One reason that I would like to look at more closely today is the ineffective steering board.

Steering board meetings are the most important regular meeting that a PM (project manager) has. It is during this meeting that the project decisions are made which go beyond the PM’s authority. It is also the place for the PM to go to if s/he needs additional support or advice to keep the project on track.

A steering board which strongly supports the project and the PM is a huge asset to the PM. Many experienced PM’s will consider a supportive steering board and project sponsor as being a major factor in the success of a project. But not all steering boards support their PM’s and project teams properly. What are the typical factors that cause steering boards to fail…?

The  Steering Board Meeting Itself

What happens during a typical steering board meeting? A typical steering board meeting will include a short report by the PM (project manager) on the status of the project. This will bring the steering board up to date on the status of the project. The PM will cover the current most important or relevant risks and issues.

If everyone is happy with the progress that the project team is making and there are no requests for decisions or advice, then the meeting can end.

If there are any requests for decisions, then these need to be presented and a decision made.

What Does a Failed or Ineffective Steering Board Look Like?

The steering board meeting sounds fairly simple. What could possibly go wrong?

Unfortunately it quite often happens that if the project starts to fail, the project manager does not get the support that he or she needs from the steering board. This leaves the PM is then left struggling to deal with the issues that the project has on their own. If the issues need support which goes beyond the PM’s authority, then the project will fail without steering board support.

Looking from the outside, a project with a failed or ineffective steering board often has a PM who is struggling to deal with the issues that the project has. The project is failing to deliver on time and possibly in quality and in budget as well. In extreme cases, the project has become a leper and no-one in the organization wants to be associated with it.

So How Do Steering Boards Fail?

There are a number of reasons why a steering board fails to support a project properly. Here are some of the most common reasons:

1.       The Steering Board Does Not Exist or Does Not Meet Regularly

The simplest reason for steering board failure is that the steering board was simply never set up when the project was initiated. Alternatively, the steering board exists on paper, but there is no regularly scheduled meeting for the steering board to discuss the project.

This leaves the PM with nowhere to take their issue. Requesting a special steering board to deal with relatively minor issues will seem to be a waste of everyone’s time. By the time that the PM decides to call the meeting, those minor issues have become major issues which are now much more difficult to deal with.

Having a regular steering board meeting right from the start of the project will enable issues to be solved while they are still small. A regular meeting will also help the PM to make sure that support for the project is maintained at upper management level.

This is the most common failure, but also the simplest to solve. Make sure that a regular steering board meeting is put in place.

2.       The Steering Board Includes the Wrong People

To be effective in helping the PM when an issue occurs, the people who are in the steering board need to be able to make decisions and implement them. If the people on the steering board do not have the authority or necessary personality to make the decisions and then implement the solution, then the steering board will be ineffective and will cause the project to fail. The project manager will not get the support that he or she needs to complete the project.

Solution? The steering board needs to be expanded to include people who are able to make the necessary decisions and get the solutions implemented.

3.       The Decisions and Actions of the Steering Board are Not Clearly Assigned and Tracked

This can be a nasty experience for the project manager. The right people are in the steering board. A decision is made but it doesn’t get done. At the next steering board meeting, the task or action is still open and the project has been delayed even further.

The reasons for further delay are quite simple:

  • The task was not clearly assigned to a single person, so nobody felt personally responsible to do it
  • No-one tracked the task and it quite simply got forgotten in the hum drum of daily business

It may seem odd at first to keep a tracking list of all the decisions and actions which are made during the steering board meeting. These people are normally the PM’s managers and one would expect them to manage this sort of thing themselves. However, it is worth remembering that they are also typically very busy people with a lot of demands on their time. It helps everyone to have the decisions documented and any open tasks clearly assigned to a single responsible person.

4.       The PM Is Not Making the Steering Board Aware of the Issues

It is the PM’s job to manage project related issues themselves as far as possible. Some PM’s take this to extremes and do not let the steering board know about the issues that the project is experiencing.

The PM needs to understand that:

  • The steering board needs to be aware of any significant risks and issues that the project is experiencing. If the PM is solving them, the steering board will be grateful, but they need to be aware of what they are. (Otherwise, they will not know what a good job the PM is doing by solving all these issues for them…!)
  • Some issues are beyond the authority of the PM to solve

These issues need to have the steering board involved so that they can be solved. Ignoring the issues will not make them go away

5.       The PM Is Not Presenting Sufficient Information so that the Steering Board Can Make a Decision

When making a decision, almost any manager will want to know:

  • What the issue is
  • Which decision needs to be made
  • What options are available
  • What the impact to the project / the organization will be of choosing each available option
  • (Optional, depending on the manager’s preference) a recommendation for choosing one particular option with reasons to explain why this is the preferred option

The managers in the steering board will not be any different. Without this information, the steering board will not make a decision and the project will get delayed until the next meeting and the information becomes available.

Many PM’s, because they are involved in the project on a day to day basis will take it for granted that the steering board members will understand the issue as well as they do. This is often a big mistake. The steering board members will often be involved at a high level in a lot of different projects and activities. As the PM, make sure that all the information that the steering board needs is available so that they can make a decision.


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