Whether you run projects or are a stakeholder to one, you might have been invited to a Steering Committee, commonly named SteerCo. At Zalando they are crucial for the projects and take more preparation than regular check-in meetings. But before we deep dive into the challenges, let's look at the theory from our Best Practices: What is a SteerCo and why is it important?
The Steering Committee (SteerCo) is a specific type of meeting where the project takes major decisions about the approach, future direction, and scope. This includes discussing the project's setup, staffing, budget as well as taking key strategic decisions throughout the lifecycle of the project. It is there to help you and your project make efficient decisions. It creates transparency, quality, accountability with the sponsors and the project drivers to ensure delivery continues to push forward to meet project goals and timelines.
Whether or not a project, of any size, needs a SteerCo is a decision that should be taken by the Project Manager whilst considering the expectations of the Project Sponsor(s).
Generally, the SteerCo should be attended by:
the project's sponsor
the key decision-makers from involved or affected departments
representatives of the Core Team (max. 1-2)
One of the common challenges when organising SteerCos is inviting the participants. Attendees take an active part into the decision meeting, thus the recommendation is to only invite people fulfilling this requirement.
In the context of my new project, due to the amount of and impact on stakeholders the need for a SteerCo was discussed with the project team and confirmed by the sponsor. The participants list was also double-checked by the SteerCo itself.
Nonetheless, I regularly have people asking me to join the SteerCo meetings, and the SteerCo itself. I collected the requests and reasons (over the years):
"No reason at all, just invite me please" (more common than one thinks)
"My counterpart from another department is there"
"I have the knowledge necessary for the meeting"
"What is being said is important for my work"
"I want to shadow the meeting/you"
As a project manager, I lead complex initiatives where I organise meetings, drive decisions and bring transparency in the most effective way possible. Thus I do not hesitate to question the necessity of someone in a meeting (is the person contributing to the decisions?), if I believe it will be disruptive and/or unnecessary. When the case presents itself, I discuss this with the project team and sponsor. If this person's manager is in the meeting, I ask for their opinion.
The challenges of remote work
Due to the global pandemic, Zalando has pretty much become a remote working company. I for one haven't seen my desk at the office since March 2020.
Because I am not at the office, I don't see people in the hallway, at the coffee machine or in our team area. Everything is remote, I spend my days having video calls - from 10 minutes catchup to compensate for not being able to banter talk at the coffee machine, to hours long meetings where decisions are made.
Since everyone is remote, it may be easy to default to inviting a crowd of people to a meeting — that way, you don't really have to identify the most critical participants, you'll avoid upsetting anyone, you'll have everyone involved on hand for a decision, and you won't have to repeat your communications separately afterwards. It is remote, people can stay silent and disable their camera.
No matter whether it is onsite or remote, for a meeting to be useful, you have to have the right people and only the right people in the (digital) room. In the case of the SteerCo where you want to solve a problem or make a decision, invite no more than 7-8 people (Victoria Fine talks about the rule of 7, the HBR Harvard Business Review recommends 8). If you have more participants, you may receive so much conﬂicting input that it's difﬁcult to deal with the problem or make the decision at hand. And even if most of the participants are silent and the camera is disabled, it is disrupting.
What is important to keep in mind as a remote meeting organiser (further read):
Writing minutes after important meetings is essential to carry on information, especially for those who didn't partake in the discussions.
Delegation, when possible, is important. Your SteerCo members are needed, and it is also their responsibility to funnel the decisions to their department.
Think of Miller's Law: the average person can only keep 7 (plus or minus 2) items in their working memory. More participants mean more items.
Efficiency: for an hour long meeting, for 7 participants each of them has 8.5 minutes to contribute
Meetings are expensive.
As a remote meeting organiser, ask yourself (and the people requesting to be present) the following:
**Would I invite all these people if we were in a room at the office? **
You have your answer.