by John Belden

Why steering committees fail to engage (and 5 ways to hold them accountable)

Apr 15, 20216 mins
Digital TransformationIT Leadership

There are some common reasons why a transformation steering committee may fail to engage—from a lack of motivation to a bias toward inaction, Here's how transformation leaders can overcome those blockers.

A group of business leaders / board members surrounded by question marks.
Credit: FangXiaNuo / Melpomenem / Getty Images

On a recent engagement, I was asked by the transformation executive to review a report he had provided to his steering committee.  My immediate reaction was, “Where is the ask?”  He looked at me a bit puzzled and asked, “What do you mean?”   From there we got into a great conversation regarding the purpose and intent of transformational steering teams.  After getting off the Zoom call I immediately jotted down my notes figuring the conversation may be valuable to a much larger group.  

In a recent CIO article, I wrote about what transformational leadership looks like. One of the innate characteristics of a great transformation leader is the ability to flex and leverage the power of their steering committees. However, most leaders fail to ability to hold steering committees to account.

Why steering teams fail to engage

Inherently, most transformation steering committees include the top C-level executives.  These are the leaders of the organization, and while they may be assigned to guide and sponsor the transformation leader, there are three reasons why they may fall short.   

Misaligned motivation. Steering committees are formed by individuals who came to power in a system that exists today, so what is their motivation to drive change?  This potential motivational blocker requires that the transformational leader take steps to ensure that each member of the steering team has a foundational understanding of the case for change and board-level visibility of the role they play.  No transformational program should move forward unless this foundation is in place.  

Uncertainty. IT enabled transformations are typically generational, meaning that those that led the last initiative have retired, moved on to new companies, or are otherwise not engaged.  This vacuum of mentorship can lead to indecisiveness and a bias toward nonaction by steering teams.  

Lack of outreach. The more tactical reason that steering committees often fail to engage is that transformation leaders do not ask them to.  Steering committees typically need to be asked or requested to engage.  Just telling them what to do will not go over well, but asking them if they want to engage will typically lead to a response like, “Well, that is why we are here.  We expect you to tell us what you need and how we can help.”  This simple interaction completely changes the potential dynamic between transformational leaders and the steering committee.  

On this last point, there seem to be some basic blockers that prevent transformational leaders from proactively engaging steering committees and some relatively simple fixes:

Leadership/management bias. New leaders often believe that they have been assigned the task to lead and asking for help is culturally and organizationally thought of as unacceptable.  This leads to steering engagement models that are more like individual performance reports vs. engagement meetings.  It can be mitigated through the assignment of leadership mentors or coaches to the transformation lead.  

SI disinsentive. Unless properly contracted, system integrators (SIs) have absolutely no motivation to push steering committee performance.  The lack of decisiveness or action by a steering committee can be justification for a future change order or leveraged as an excuse for nonperformance.  You can head this blocker off at the pass by incorporating contractual language that requires the SI to proactively identify the critical issues that need to be raised for steering committee engagement.  

Missing metrics. Transformation leaders may be missing metrics and methods for holding steering committees accountable.   Most steering committees will perform exceptionally well when presented with metrics to measure performance for two reasons: They have made their careers by meeting or beating their numbers; they will not want to look deficient in front of their peers.

5 ways to hold steering committees accountable

Every highly competent SI understands how to hold steering committees accountable.  The real question is whether they will share this with you.  The answer is, of course, yes—if you ask them.    Here are five items that you should look for to evaluate their response:

  • Benefit forecasting and tracking. Has each member of the steering committee committed to specific benefit targets and incorporated them into future business plans with a strategy to harvest and capture of these benefits?
  • Resource allocation. Each area of the enterprise will likely be required to pony up both full-time and part-time resources to drive a successful outcome.  Measurements of resource availability and time allocation can be an early indicator of project success or failure.
  • One of the key success factors of a business transformation is effective communications and messaging.  Steering teams can be the vehicle for delivery of key messages across the organization and also the channel to bring specific organizational status of readiness back to the committee.  Both of these items can easily be tracked and measured as a performance indicator.
  • Decision efficiency. Transformation teams make thousands of decisions.  One impactful way to hold the steering committee accountable for decision making is to assign sponsors on the committee for each significant decision.  This actually solves a couple of problems in that transformation leaders will have allies when decisions are required at the steering committee level and it provides another metric of specific accountability that can be used to measure the committee’s effectiveness.
  • Organizational alignment. Transformational change requires alignment from top to bottom.  Steering committees can be tasked to ensure that their own management team’s performance plans incorporate specific accountabilities to facilitate the transformation and that future-state process performance metrics are incorporated.  This, of course, can be measured and monitored.   

Digital transformations do not start when the system is implemented; the foundation of change is laid in the steering committee.  Because there is a direct correlation between executive engagement and project success, transformational leaders must enable steering teams to be their transformational allies.