A Business Technology Place

Building a technology steering committee

Committees. Do you cringe at the name or embrace it? Information Technology departments use a steering committee to make decisions and prioritize work. Unfortunately, some business department leaders often roll their eyes or look for ways to request work without going through the committee. Who can blame them? Committees are difficult to operate without creating unnecessary delays for projects that need to be done. Yet part of the purpose of a committee is to act as a stage-gate and advisory board so that only the most important work is processed. Finding the right balance can be difficult and tricky.11080482376_602d236a44_z

I strongly believe there is no magic formula for steering committee design and operation. That’s because I consider the primary influencers of optimal committee design to be variable: culture, size, and purpose of the organization. My approach has been to keep a discipline to try, measure, and adjust. In this approach, I have a found a few elements of committee design that I consider to be the core of what makes the operations of the committee relevant and meaningful to the organization.

1. Name the committee with a purpose.

I don’t like the name Information Technology Steering Committee because it implies the committee is mainly comprised of and controlled by IT management. I chose the name Business Technology Steering Committee with the intention of showing that the IT group is neither the primary controller nor primary membership of the committee body.

2. Encourage and promote departmental representation.

For the committee to function as a complete governing body for the technology-spend of the company it should be represented by members from each department. IT is a cost center on the books and thus the decisions that are made on how to spend the IT allocation should be visible to everyone. Some may see this as the political recommendation in my tips-list as it involves building the membership of the group. I like to think of it more as the opportunity to build relationships with the various department heads. This has been a sore spot for traditional IT groups, but it can change if IT leadership sells the vision of the Business Technology Steering Committee and builds a committee that is well represented.

3. Don’t over complicate the committee with process and procedures.

The top reason that business leaders don’t like to participate in committees is that they see the committee as overly bureaucratic: Too many forms, too much red tape and too much delay. Yet committee organizers need some level of process to govern the inputs, outputs, and conversation within the group. The trick is to find the right balance. When committee members see this they will in turn act as ambassadors for the committee and the process and it will make it much easier to gain compliance from the rest of the organization

4. Find a way to settle priority discussions.

I consider this to be hardest part of setting up the committee and I don’t know that I’ve found the best answer for my group yet. The conflict arises when multiple requests are approved but require the same set of employees to accomplish. Each business presenter favors their own request and many committee members want to do it all without having to prioritize. Other factors are that timing and execution could make or break the entire business case of what is presented. It’s important to stick to the facts and keep emotion out of prioritization discussions. Use business logic such as ROI, compliance, and regulatory matters as guides.

I’d like to know what has and has not worked for you. Committee design and operation is not easy. Can I say it’s like herding cats or is that too cliché? Let me know your thoughts.

Onward and upward!

Photo Credit:  Reynermedia

Get Uncomfortable

While planning to lead a steering committee meeting this week, I realized I was little uncomfortable with what the meeting content could create. With multiple stakeholders in the room, there is always a potential for conflicting opinions. Who likes conflict? I’m not afraid to admit that some, if not all, conflict can make me uncomfortable.

Yet, it’s these kind of conversations that you know you have to have to make progress. It’s these kind of conversations that you need to have to consider a variety of opinions and ideas. I would say that you need tough conversations to spawn innovation and progress.

The experience was a good reminder that I need to get uncomfortable so that I don’t get complacent. When I’m uncomfortable I concentrate more and I work harder. Being uncomfortable keeps from me settling with what is easy and makes me work to find what might be better. As I told a co-worker after the meeting, the experiences that makes us uncomfortable at work are the salt and spice of our day.

It sounds funny and may make you squirm in your seat – Get Uncomfortable!

Cast the bully out

We have a love-hate relationship with steering committees.

Do committees provide value that pays for the amount of overhead they create in workflows? If you are a committee member with voting privileges then the tendency is to support and agree with the both the decisions and procedural steps the committee follows. If you are a project requestor then your attitude about a steering committee is influenced by the amount of steps involved to get decisions as well as the amount of time it takes to reach a decision.

I have experience as both a committee member and a work requestor. I’ve observed both the value of a committee and the hindrance a committee can insert into workflow. A steering committee creates value when it buffers the amount of work that is given to a technology team to implement. The result of buffering work is protecting the downstream resources from becoming overburdened with too many concurrent tasks. Buffering work also prioritizes the backlog and technology team members want to work on what the business leaders designate as top priorities.

There is usually a bully, or two, that receives all of the attention of the committee.

But you’ve undoubtedly observed a myopic committee as well. There are usually one or two platforms/customers that usually receive top priority or seem get automatic approval. There is usually a direct correlation to the amount of revenue generated by the platform or customer and the committee decision.

Conflict arises when these projects take all available resources such that other projects or customers begin to starve for attention. A significant challenge exists for the employees who represent the smaller platforms and customers to be able to get work done. That’s not a good situation for the anyone. But the committee members feel justified because they have allocated resources to the work that tied to the most revenue.

Cast the bully out.

One way to remove the platform/customer that usually plays trump in the committee is to organize that work team around a hybrid technology model. In the hybrid model the business owner (product manager/customer manager) has day-to-day direction on setting priorities for the technology team. A centralized project management office can track the work backlog and work-in-progress (WIP). The business owner then reviews the WIP at the steering committee meeting to bring visibility and accountability to the direction and decisions of their group. So while the steering committee is not prioritizing work for the decentralized group, they do have visibility and the ability to influence work if needed.

This approach doesn’t work for all platforms and customers because that would mean that there are enough resources to have a dedicated technology team for each platform/customer. It does align the platform/customer work with the business line to promote a more agile approach to work. The business owners that used shared resources no longer get trumped by the bully projects. The bully projects are able to move more quickly because they don’t have the overhead of committee processing. It’s a win-win-win.

Steering Committee Bully