Do steering groups work?

They might not steer anything at all



Article Author John Willcox

John Willcox is Fairisle Consulting’s Lead Consultant

Remember those mini carousels you’d go on as a small child? You’d sit in a miniature car, and hold on to the little steering wheel. You’d turn the wheel and it felt a bit like you were steering the car. But whichever way you turned, it made no difference. The car, and you, would just go round and round until the roundabout stopped. Still, all good fun when you’re little.

The steering group

But now you’re grown up. And you’ve been asked to join a Steering Group. You attend meetings and decisions get made. We’re going to do this, and that, and a bit of this other thing. Maybe you’ve been asked to undertake a survey. You carry out the survey and bring the results back to the next meeting. Everybody’s really interested to read them, it’s great work. Then what?

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Grind to a halt

Well, it’s then that things grind to a halt. Because the thing about steering groups is they rarely actually steer anything. Many steering groups only look like decision making bodies. Just like the little carousel cars only looked like real cars, and it only seemed like you could steer.

That’s because the real source of power is elsewhere. Sure, the outputs might feed into senior decision making. But steering groups are often just a way of pretending to share decision making.

The power of teams

That’s why we’re always going on about the power of teams, and the importance of giving teams the ability to make decisions.

When you think about it, most organisations are made up of teams. But often the teams are tightly focused on a particular function. The HR team, say, or the Finance team. The thing is though, the organisation as a whole isn’t usually there just to ‘do’ HR, or ‘do’ Finance. The danger is that single-focus teams start to operate solely for their own department. And lose sight of the organisation’s overall mission.

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The merry-go-round

That’s often where the Steering Group idea comes up. Someone says, ‘Well we need to break down these silos, let’s bring people from different departments together and let them sort it out.’ Sounds like a good idea, but all too often you’re back to the merry-go-round and nothing much gets done.

Much better

Much better to form delivery teams. Certainly, include people from different departments. But give one of the team real decision-making authority. Not the ability to just do what they want, but the authority to say ‘This is what we’ve agreed to do, and I would like you, delivery team, to carry out these actions to achieve this goal’. In the Agile world, this role is the ‘Product Owner’. The Product Owner works with all the other bits of the organisation, and discusses the detail with the delivery team, to make sure everything is sensible and feasible. At the end of the day though, they get to say what the delivery team does.

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Sounds a bit scary? It isn’t really, though it does take a bit of courage on the part of senior management to devolve authority. But we’ve often found that once this step is taken, few organisations look back. And that’s because the merry-go-round stops and real delivery starts.

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