Project steering group

The project steering group is accountable for the success of its project. It is responsible for making sure that the expectations set out in the business case for the project are met. If the project is seen as a small business, the steering group is its board of directors. It will commission the project plan from the project manager and, assuming it is agreed, will authorise the start of the project. It will also authorise any significant changes to the plan that are outside the project manager's authority. It secures and assigns resources. As the project manager will have only limited authority, the project steering group adjudicates on any conflicts within the project and resolves problems between the project and third parties, internal departments or other projects. It is given its authority by the portfolio management team once the financial and other resources have been allocated.

A project steering group should be made up of people who:

e are committed to a successful project outcome;

e are authorised to make decisions;

e can provide or source resources;

e are experts in their fields.

They should be chosen for a combination of experience and authority appropriate to the project.

As well as getting together at important decision-making points, most project steering groups prefer regular, scheduled meetings at which the project manager can report on the present status of the project and forecast how things are likely to proceed. Typically, this might be every month. If they need to meet more regularly, this may be an indication that their (and the project manager's) authority is not clearly defined and that the project is at risk of being managed by committee.

The project steering group should not be allowed to become a committee. It should be made up of people who are both senior enough to make decisions and expert enough in their field to add essential knowledge, skill and experience. This may suggest that it could, or should, be open to any senior individual with an interest in the project. However, the fewer people involved in the project steering group, the easier it is to make decisions. Even so, a balance has to be struck between an autocrat driving the project and a cast of thousands.

Since the project will necessarily become a shared endeavour, it will need to involve many different, sometimes antagonistic, interests. Chief among these will be the customer of the deliverable to be produced by the project, the developers who will build it and those who will fund it. The project steering group will be required to make tough choices, and it is important that its decisions are sufficiently balanced across these different perspectives. The project will suffer if one person's view always takes precedence.

These perspectives can be brought to bear on many important decisions throughout the project. It will be seen how the interests of the funders, the customers and the developers must be accommodated to ensure that effective decisions are made about changes to the project or when making judgments about the satisfactory completion of deliverables.

The interests of these three parties should be represented at an authoritative level, but these people will be part of a group and will need leadership. Consequently, the project steering group is usually chaired by a project sponsor, who is responsible for delivering the commercial benefits outlined in the business case. The project sponsor is likely to have been the driving force since the project was conceived. The project sponsor's role on the project steering group is outlined below.

The project sponsor's role and responsibilities

Role

E promote the project's commercial imperatives;

E assume ownership of the project on behalf of the portfolio management team;

E seek to deliver a viable outcome.

Principal responsibilities

E take ownership of the business case from the portfolio management team and make sure it is maintained;

E brief the portfolio management team about project progress, alerting them if benefit escalation conditions have been met;

E authorise the start of the project;

E authorise the plan and agree expenditure;

E resolve any priority or resource conflicts through arbitration with those on the project steering group who represent the customer and the developer;

E organise and chair project steering group meetings;

E set escalation conditions for time and costs and ensure that the project manager provides suitable notification;

E authorise action if significant budget or timescale variances are forecast;

E authorise the closure of the project after agreement with other members of the project steering group;

E report the realisation of benefits to the portfolio management team in accordance with the agreed timetable.

The importance of balance in a project steering group and of a focused, authoritative project sponsor was demonstrated during the implementation of a new computer system for use by Britain's general practitioners (gps), when some lax commercial and time management practices were project roles and responsibilities observed. This was particularly evident during the user acceptance testing phase of the proj ect. Faced with their new computer system for the first time, many gps (the project's customers) asked the it contractor for functions that were not in the specification. The contractor incorporated the changes and the gps eventually received an improved system that met their needs. In the absence of authoritative commercial control, nobody asked if the changes should be allowed and the project's timescale and budget were exceeded because its organisational structure was missing this important view.

This is just one of a set of problems that arise from a poorly constructed project steering group. If there is a risk of it having too many members, separate out those who are there to provide opinions but who are not authorised to make decisions about the project. If these people represent teams or departments that will be customers of the project's deliverable, create a separate user forum through which they can express their views. Select one of them to chair the user forum and arbitrate where conflict arises. This person should sit on the project steering group to relay the forum's views and provide a single point of contact to determine the requirements the project's deliverable must satisfy and confirm they have been met at the end.

The same applies to the developers. If there are several suppliers involved, select one to lead and join the project steering group to convey their views about the design of the project's deliverable, making sure it meets any particular standards.

Sometimes the project may involve a customer from outside the organisation, for instance where a bespoke piece of machinery is being developed for an external paying client. In this case, it would be ideal for both the customer and the supplier to join the project steering group. Sometimes, however, issues such as commercial confidentiality will prevent customers and suppliers working as closely together as would be desirable. In these cases, the customer and the supplier should have their own project steering groups, in essence creating two interdependent projects where one would have been ideal.

Overall, the project steering group's performance can be judged against the extent to which:

e the business case is maintained, is always accessible and illustrates the difference between the company's total effort or investment in the project compared with the income or benefit from it;

e the project produces a value-adding outcome as identified in the business case;

e it has identified and empowered a single project manager to plan, co-ordinate and control the project; e it has been able to set and apply escalation conditions for the project manager; e it has been able to provide sufficient resources of the necessary quality to allow the plan to be fulfilled.

For examples of variations in a project's organisational structure see Chapter 4.

Project Management Made Easy

Project Management Made Easy

What you need to know about… Project Management Made Easy! Project management consists of more than just a large building project and can encompass small projects as well. No matter what the size of your project, you need to have some sort of project management. How you manage your project has everything to do with its outcome.

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