Why Projects Fail Part 2: Project Committees

Various business people in a meeting.

In Part 1 of this series on Why Project Fail, I looked at the project selection process and the documentation of business cases, including effective analysis of benefits and assumptions.  In part 2, I will consider a variety of issues that can arise from the project governing body, which I will refer to throughout as the Project Steering Committee.

Project Fail #5: No or inadequate terms of reference

Committees in organisations are generally formed as a result of the board or management deciding to establish a group of people to undertake some specific work.  Terms of Reference (otherwise known as a Charter) should be documented to provide a clear understanding of the role of the committee.

Terms of reference should include a brief explanation of the role or purpose of the Project Steering Committee.  Why does it exist and on what authority has it been established?  The powers bestowed upon the committee should be articulated, including its rights to make recommendations and decisions, as well as its ability to authorise any particular actions.

The document should include the anticipated duration of the committee.  Note that just because a project has gone live, does not necessarily mean that the project committee should be disbanded.  Benefits can take time (potentially years) to be realised, and there is an oversight role that project committees may fulfil after handover to operations.

The Terms of Reference should state what activities the committee has been established to undertake.  Operational considerations such as how often the committee will meet, who can call committee meetings, entitlement to attend meetings and what secretarial support will be provided are often included.

Meeting frequency, formality and reporting may also be written in a Terms of Reference document.

Project Tip:
It is good practice to review the performance of project steering committees regularly and ensure they are operating within their terms of reference and deliver value to the organisation.

Project Fail #6: Failure to adequately induct new members

Membership of project steering committees can fluctuate for a variety of reasons during the life of the committee.  When this occurs, new committee members can sometimes be “thrown in the deep end” and if the project isn’t going well, find themselves “up a creek without a paddle”.  Member induction is important to ensuring that new members “hit the ground running” and are able to provide meaningful contributions as early as possible.

It is customarily the role of the Project Steering Committee chair to induct new members, although this may be delegated to others.  Inductions should include:

  • Overview of the project, including its expected benefits, risks, scope and budget
  • Explanation of the role of the Project Steering Committee and review of current members
  • Clarification of the expectations of Project Steering Committee members
  • Summary of the current project status including any high level risks and issues.
Project Tip:
Project steering committees may consider documenting succession plans for key members within the committee should they leave unexpectedly, to reduce disruption to the project.

Project Fail #7: Ineffective Project Steering Committee Chair

Modern office with group of business people in a meetingThe role of Chair in Project Steering Committees is critically important in ensuring the effectiveness of the group.  Committees operate as a group of individuals that come together to utilise their diversity of skills, knowledge, experiences, behaviours, perspectives and viewpoints to make good decisions.

Chairs (which may go by other names such as project owners) exist to facilitate this effective decision-making by helping the Project Steering Committee determine the right issues to be discussed, providing an environment conducive to open communication, ensuring adequate time is spent on the most important project issues and helping the group come to a point where it is ready to make decisions.

Being a Project Steering Committee chair can be a very demanding role, which is often seen as a referee when committee members collide.  Individual committee members will often exhibit a variety of personality styles, including being timid, shy and apprehensive, or domineering, intimidating and bullying.  Creating an environment of psychological safety where committee members feel free to ask silly questions can be challenging.  This becomes considerably more complex when outside the project steering committee meetings, an organisational hierarchy exists where one committee member reports directly to another.

Project Tip:
Choose your Project Steering Committee Chair carefully – they can be a significant determining factor in project success or failure.

In the final article in the series, I will look at Communication and Reporting.

Gain the tools and knowledge to become an effective Queensland Government digital project board committee member with Queensland Government Digital Leadership: Digital Project Board Governance Masterclass.

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Tim Timchur is the Digital Governance Technologist in QUTeX. He is a qualified accountant and chartered secretary with over 30 years’ experience implementing technology solutions across a wide range of sectors and industries. Tim operates a business driving digital transformation through cloud computing, artificial intelligence, robotic process automation and cybersecurity solutions.

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