Strategic Initiative Steering Teams: A Sharp or Dull Blade?

Knife & Orange cloth

Sharp knives are effective

It is taught that a dull knife blade is more dangerous than a sharpened blade. By analogy, sharp strategic initiative steering teams are useful tools and dull ones might be dangerous.

Steering teams are usually composed of relatively senior managers. As senior people, they bring experience and a higher-level perspective to the various issues that are found in a strategic initiative. Here are some of the ways that a sharp steering team adds value to the strategic initiative:

  • Steering teams can improve the characterization of the problem or opportunity. Steering team members have local knowledge that is not shared by others. Steering teams can help to avoid the mistake of jumping into solutions without understanding the problem (see the previous article on solutioneering).
  • Steering teams can improve the understanding of the local and enterprise-wide organizational impacts of proposed solutions. Almost always, the negative impacts are unevenly distributed. Some parts of the organization feel great pain. We need to assure that each stakeholder balances the greater good versus the sacrifice.
  • Steering teams can validate the strategy. There are three important high-level questions that can confuse strategy execution: “What businesses and industries do we want to be in?” “How do we compete against our competitors?””Where should we specialize?” (For more on the questions, see this article on the three kinds of strategy.) The steering team is a huge help in interpreting guiding the diagnostics and interpreting the data.
  • Steering teams can support socializing strategic decisions. We need to accept that not everyone knows, understands, or agrees with a strategy. Steering team members are often held in high regard, and their opinions and rhetoric can help stakeholders understand the reasons for supporting the decisions.
  • Steering teams facilitate resource acquisition. Because strategic initiatives are endeavors – programs composed of projects – the organization needs to provide resources. The steering team is often the source for contributions of human resources, financial resources, and facilities.
  • Steering teams can validate the program governance. Because strategic initiatives span boundaries, organizations and leaders need to devise and implement coordinating and integrating mechanisms.

Should the Steering Team Steer?

I think that we should be cautious when calling a group of managers a “steering team.” On one hand, steering teams can provide direction and guidance to the project or program manager. On the other hand, dull steering teams contribute to these four interrelated dysfunctions:

  • Micromanagement. Strong opinions on the part of individual steering team members – combined with passiveness by the program or project manager (and passiveness by other steering team members, too) – can lead to the steering team effectively running the program. It raises the question, Where do you draw the line between steering and advising? This micromangement undermines morale and often leads to…
  • Mediocre solutions. The broader and more important strategic intent is weakened and undermined by “localitis,” the pre-occupation with the local business concerns of the manager. We want good governance of the strategic initiative program, and this can be diminished if the steering team is simply a group of people who require appeasement. Additionally, there is…
  • Delay as decisions are deferred, discussed and compromised. This problem becomes especially pronounced if the steering team is more than 5 to 7 members in size; presentation poisoning becomes toxic to strategic decision making.
  • Passiveness. I have seen program managers “take the easy way” out. They wait for more seniors mangers to set direction, leading back to micromanagement: a vicious circle!

Blade Sharpening

Fortunately, the dysfunctions described above can be minimized with some blade sharpening: Review my articles on fast and effective decisions, the compact approach to strategymeetings, and program sponsor roles and responsibilities.

An improperly-organized steering committee can drain value from a strategic initiative, rather than add value. Do you agree that steering teams can help or hurt, depending upon how they are designed and managed?

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About Greg Githens

Thought leader who helps others think strategically, make strategy, and turn vision into action. Coach, advisor, board member, and hands-on leader. Seminar leader and speaker of popular offerings "How to Think Strategically & Apply Business Acumen" and "Leading Strategic Initiatives (Program Management)." Experience in driving change in Fortune 500 and mid-size companies through strategic initiatives and business transformation.
This entry was posted in Program & Portfolio Management, Success Principles for Strategic Initiatives, Useful Practices & Management Tools and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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