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Steering Committees

How Organizations Should Replace Their Steering Committees

  • Claudia Langen
  • Bennet van Well
  • Wednesday, 15. May 2024

Wherever organizations embark on transformations or aim to manage projects involving numerous stakeholders and complex topics, one entity is typically involved: the steering committee. Here, department heads convene to guide the project — at least, that’s the theory. In practice, however, steering committees often foster stagnation. It would be prudent for organizations to disband them and redistribute their functions to more suitable equivalents. 

A Body Designed for Motion, Yet Employed for Stasis 

Consider a committee where all threads converge — a hub where inquiries from stakeholders, project members, clients, and departments are centralized, ensuring uniform knowledge, identifying discrepancies, and making definitive decisions. It’s the go-to place for top-down solutions and setting the organization’s future course. These are the standard tasks of a steering committee, and on paper, they seem logical. 

Yet, in reality, steering committees seldom meet these expectations. Rather than facilitating change, they impede it. Despite members’ desire for transformation, steering committees are often ill-equipped to manage it effectively. Change tends to occur only when negotiations are relegated to the organization’s periphery. Significant decisions are brokered behind closed doors, over casual dinners, in unofficial gatherings, or on the golf course. We explore why this happens and how the roles of steering committees can be better served. 

The Powerful Held Hostage by Circumstances 

Steering committees exist to preserve the status quo’s power dynamics. This is both their intent and their dilemma. Those in power orchestrate and uphold the current state of affairs, maintaining a delicate equilibrium. Change is a gamble, with unpredictable outcomes. 

Moreover, as one of the highest cross-divisional entities, steering committees are burdened with an excess of responsibilities and issues, rendering them inflexible. Those at the top often lack the nuanced expertise required for operationally sound decisions. 

Given these factors, it’s understandable why steering committees either fail to assert control or become sidelined until the eve of meetings. During sessions, agreements are made with a nod or opposing factions are caught off-guard. However, when micro-politics are confined to the informal arenas of the organization, orchestrating change becomes increasingly challenging.

Four Tasks of Steering Committees and Their Alternatives 

From our perspective, there’s only one logical move for organizations: If you seek a managed evolution of your organization, you must dissolve your steering committee and allocate its duties across various entities, institutions, and meeting structures. There are a total of four functions that are needed for a successful transformation:  

  1. Seeking and Providing Direction 
  2. Maintaining Course 
  3. Mobilizing Participants 
  4. Generating Legitimacy 

For each function, a more effective alternative exists, surpassing the steering committee’s capabilities due to its specialized nature. 

1. Seeking and Providing Direction 

Transformation requires guidance. It’s the top management’s role to make strategic decisions. Delegating this to steering committees leads to a diffusion of responsibility, as committees tend to make collective decisions, if any. Decisions need to be made regarding the division of transformation into sub-topics, formation of project units, and setting their objectives. Top management’s steering role also encompasses evaluating the transformation’s progress and determining subsequent actions. 

Top management must regularly carve out time for reflection to understand its responsibilities in the transformation and what it cannot delegate. This is optimally done through workshops, where various scenarios are considered, and essential decisions are made. Without proper preparation, there’s a risk of getting sidetracked or misaligned priorities. 

Strategic decisions are made by top management, while operational leaders of sub-projects formulate their own goals. These are then succinctly presented to the higher-ups in a concise “one-pager” for formal approval during routine meetings. 


Disruption needs hierarchy

2. Maintaining Course 

Steering committees typically ensure that sub-project teams execute the agreed-upon tasks. Rather than micromanaging accomplished managers, it’s more efficient to establish a Project Management Office (PMO). The PMO tracks work progress, verifies deliverables, and sends reminders as needed. It can also escalate issues to top management or signal when a sub-project requires managerial intervention. 

Quality assurance is vital in transformation projects. Sub-project outcomes must be rigorously evaluated to ensure reliability. This is beyond the reach of both top management and steering committees. A proven alternative is the formation of a ‘Red Team,’ comprising three to four astute individuals from the organization. These teams regularly review the sub-projects’ advancements with the Red Teams, addressing questions like: 

  • Who will utilize the sub-projects’ outcomes, and when? 
  • How are the interfaces with other sub-projects on related subjects managed? 
  • Who outside the organization (e.g., service providers, suppliers, or clients) is impacted, and what are the implications? 
  • What additional expertise is required in the subject area? 
  • Who is responsible for developing these topic areas? 

3. Mobilizing Participants  

New initiatives are often stalled because employees and managers are cautious to avoid errors and potential misjudgments. Yet, in times of change, making decisions is a pivotal role of the executive leadership. By deciding, they accept responsibility, which is neither delegable nor avoidable. They must ensure that their project managers are not immobilized by the fear of being held accountable for mistakes, thereby granting them the confidence to act. This typically necessitates a formal decision in a routine meeting, supported by a well-defined and succinct decision template. Prior consultations with Red Teams and involved managers have already laid the foundation for enduring decisions. 

Another impediment to successful transformations is the presence of individuals who are adversely affected by the change. They may feel justifiably disheartened and hinder the intended changes, especially if it has been suggested that the transformation will only produce winners. The perspectives of these ‘losers’ are rarely addressed in steering committees, which tend to focus on the collective view. To convert their resistance into cooperation, they require clear explanations and, occasionally, compensations. 

The individuals likely to be disadvantaged by a transformation are often identifiable before it commences. It is imperative for the top management to proactively engage with these stakeholders, both before and after making decisions. This time investment is crucial as it helps prevent the transformation from being impeded. 

4. Generating Legitimacy  

Every change initiative needs public figures, exemplars, and role models who advocate for the transformation. Legitimacy is established through their public endorsements and symbolic acts. Town hall meetings and all-staff events are excellent venues for such expressions, allowing for the prominent celebration of successes and the acknowledgment of failures without letting them dominate the narrative. 

Legitimacy also grows from comprehensive dialogues. These discussions build solidarity, as joint endeavors are intrinsically fulfilling. In these dialogues, stakeholders share their local rationalities—the sound justifications for their viewpoints. Recognizing and respecting these justifications, even when there is disagreement, fosters solidarity once more and can shift defensive postures regarding change initiatives to a stance of cautious indifference. 

Managing the Display Side  

A transformation requires a display side as well. It’s essential for external stakeholders to maintain confidence that everything is progressing correctly. To ensure this, they should not be burdened with the organization’s internal uncertainties and deviations. Large entities need defined milestones, checkpoints, and progress updates to establish assurance, which doesn’t necessarily involve a steering committee. The primary role of a Project Management Office (PMO) is to create these informative displays. 

Consistent reporting and polished presentations that showcase the transformation’s achievements and discreetly note any setbacks (tucked away in the fine print) help to forestall apprehensive reactions from stakeholders. This is where the role of communication departments becomes crucial. They must weave a consistent narrative throughout the transformation process, thereby safeguarding and supporting the PMO and the managers in charge. Smaller organizations lacking a dedicated communications team should designate at least one individual to handle communication regarding the project. Consistency in communication also lends credibility. 

Distributing Accountability  

The responsibility that once lay with a single point on the steering committee must now be distributed among many. This calls for a clear delineation of duties among sub-project managers, PMOs, red teams, and communication specialists. The emphasis should be on skill and dedication, leadership, and potential for growth rather than on hierarchy when assigning tasks related to transformation. It is crucial that the top management alone is charged with finalizing decisions. This approach is vital for initiating a transformation early and making it perceptible to the workforce. 

In essence, doing away with a cumbersome, centralized committee allows the entire organization to embrace change. It becomes feasible to engage a broader array of stakeholders in the transformation process. Expertise can be leveraged more effectively, employee engagement can be fostered from the beginning, and staff can be entrusted with responsibilities—or motivated to take responsible actions. 

From a state of inertia, there emerges a potential for progress. 

Dr. Claudia Langen

observes and writes based on the conviction: Everything starts with the right questions.

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Bennet van Well

Dr. Bennet van Well

is a partner at Metaplan and advises management teams on strategy and organizational processes.

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