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Common Killers of Steering Committees and How to Avoid Them

IPMA South Africa, Common Killers of Steering Committees and How to Avoid Them

Steering committees are a cornerstone of effective project governance. When properly executed, they can guide projects to success, ensuring that objectives are met, resources are allocated efficiently, and conflicts are resolved. However, steering committees can also falter, leading to wasted resources, missed deadlines, and strained relationships.

When projects fail, the spotlight usually falls on the project manager, but ineffectual steering committees are often a far bigger problem.

Understanding the common pitfalls of steering committees and learning how to avoid them is essential for any organisation looking to leverage these powerful decision-making bodies.

Let´s explore the most common issues that undermine steering committees and offer practical solutions for overcoming these challenges.

1. The Dominator Effect - What Is the Dominator Effect?

The Dominator Effect occurs when one or more strong personalities start to dominate the steering committee. This leads to a situation where the committee’s agenda becomes skewed towards the preferences of the dominant individuals, marginalising the input from other members. The dominant figures essentially steer the committee according to their own agendas rather than the collective goals of the project.

Consequences of the Dominator Effect:

  • Skewed Decision-Making: Decisions may favour the dominant individual’s interests rather than the project's best needs.

  • Reduced Participation: Other members may feel disheartened and stop contributing, diminishing the committee’s effectiveness.

How to Avoid the Dominator Effect

Use Shared Leadership

To combat the Dominator Effect, adopt a shared leadership model. This involves distributing leadership responsibilities among multiple individuals. For instance, a co-lead model, where two leaders with complementary skills guide the committee, can balance perspectives and ensure that no single voice drowns out the others. In more complex projects, a tri-lead model, with three leaders, might be necessary to represent diverse viewpoints and maintain equilibrium.

Implement a Structured Agenda

Create a structured agenda that allocates time for each member to voice their opinions. This ensures that all perspectives are heard and valued.

Foster a Collaborative Environment

Encourage a culture of respect and collaboration where every member feels valued and heard. Regularly solicit input from all members to maintain a balanced discussion.

2. Hidden Compromises - What Are Hidden Compromises?

Hidden compromises refer to the hidden biases and personal agendas that committee members bring to the table. Members might pursue decisions that benefit their own departments or interests rather than focusing on the project’s overall success.

Consequences of Hidden Compromises:

  • Unbalanced Decisions: Compromises driven by personal interests can undermine the project's integrity and effectiveness.

  • Conflict of Interests: Personal stakes can lead to conflicts that detract from the project's objectives.

How to Avoid Hidden Compromises

Involve Non-Biased Members

Incorporate members who are neutral and do not have a personal stake in the project’s outcomes. For example, a finance expert on a technology project can provide impartial insights and challenge biases. These neutral members can act as a counterbalance to vested interests and help ensure that decisions are made based on the project’s needs rather than personal gain.

Establish Clear Criteria for Membership

Develop clear criteria for selecting committee members to ensure that they are chosen for their expertise and impartiality rather than personal connections or influence.

Regularly Review Membership Composition

Periodically review the committee’s membership to ensure that it remains balanced and free from biases that could affect decision-making.

3. Puppet Mastery - What Is Puppet Mastery?

Puppet Mastery describes a situation where behind-the-scenes manoeuvring and power plays undermine the steering committee’s effectiveness. Key decisions are made outside of meetings, and committee members become mere figureheads in a pre-determined agenda.

Consequences of Puppet Mastery:

  • Disengaged Members: Members may become disengaged if they perceive that decisions are made without their input.

  • Ineffective Meetings: Meetings become unproductive as decisions have already been made behind the scenes.

How to Avoid Puppet Mastery

Establish Clear Rules of Engagement

Develop and enforce ground rules for how the committee will operate. This includes:

  • Decision-Making Processes: Clearly define how decisions will be made, ensuring transparency and fairness.

  • Participation Guidelines: Set expectations for how members will engage with the committee’s work.

  • Conflict Resolution: Establish procedures for addressing disagreements or conflicts.

Consider Outside Facilitation

In contentious or high-stakes projects, a neutral facilitator can help manage the dynamics within the committee. Professional facilitators can ensure that all voices are heard, maintain focus on objectives, and manage conflicts effectively.

Ensure Transparency

Promote transparency in all committee activities. This includes documenting meetings, sharing agendas and minutes, and ensuring that all members are kept informed about decisions and discussions.

4. Too Far from the Actual Work

Committee members often include top executives or consultants who may not have direct experience with the day-to-day realities of the project.

Example: Decisions are made without understanding the practical challenges faced by the project team.

Solution: Include Frontline Perspectives

Ensure that the committee includes members who are directly involved in or have recent experience with the work being done. This could mean adding representatives from the operational level or including regular updates from those on the ground.

How to Implement:

  • Invite Frontline Staff: Include operational staff or representatives who can provide real-world insights and feedback.

  • Regular Updates: Schedule periodic reports from the project team to keep committee members informed of day-to-day challenges and achievements.

The Takeaway - Steering Committees

Steering committees are a vital component of successful project management, but their effectiveness can be undermined by various pitfalls. By recognising these common issues—such as the Dominator Effect, Hidden Compromises, Puppet Mastery, and Too Far from the Actual Work—and implementing strategies to address them, you can harness the full potential of your steering committee.

Key Strategies for Steering Committee Success

  1. Adopt a Shared Leadership Model: Balance perspectives and avoid dominance by employing co-leads or even tri-leads.

  2. Incorporate Non-Biased Members: Include members who do not have a personal stake in the project’s outcomes to provide impartial insights.

  3. Establish Clear Rules and Procedures: Define how decisions are made, manage participation, and handle conflicts.

  4. Consider Outside Facilitation: For highly contentious projects, a professional facilitator can maintain neutrality and focus.

  5. Foster a Collaborative and Transparent Environment: Ensure all members have a voice and that processes are open and honest.

  6. Streamline Processes and Manage Power Dynamics: Simplify decision-making and establish rules to prevent power plays.

By addressing these common issues, you can create a steering committee that not only guides your project effectively but also sets the stage for long-term success.


IPMA South Africa, Common Killers of Steering Committees and How to Avoid Them


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