Effective IT Steering Committees

A board of directors for an organization can be a liability – or they can be a serious asset. They can connect the organization to other organizations. They can bring insight into the organization and steer the organization away from potential disasters. A strong IT steering committee can do the same for an IT organization. However, getting a steering committee to be effective isn’t as easy as it sounds. The Indy CIO Network tackled the challenge of effective steering committees at the May 2017 meeting, and here’s what the group said (from my point of view).

Steering or Status

Getting the appropriate people involved in the steering committee is essential. If you don’t get anyone engaged, the meetings become little (or nothing) more than IT reporting status on its projects. It becomes a monologue of what IT thinks should be done, with passive listeners yawning, writing notes, or answering emails from their phone.

An effective steering committee isn’t getting status updates from their IT team members, it’s participating in an active discussion by asking questions – including questions that are sometimes difficult and uncomfortable. That’s the value of a steering committee. Just like a board of directors, it’s important for the CIO to get pushed out of their comfort zone – in a generative and safe way.

Looking for Trouble

If you’ve ever had kids, there are times you know that they’re just looking for trouble. They’re trying to get in trouble – generally for inexplicable reasons. However, good IT organizations aren’t looking to create trouble as our children sometimes are, they’re looking to find trouble before it becomes something bigger.

Like going to the mechanic when the check engine light comes on in the car instead of ignoring it, steering committees can provide valuable diagnostic information about how the IT organization is doing. While the feedback may not always feel good, it’s much better to solve a problem when it’s small and can be easily addressed than when it’s become a systemic problem that’s taken hold.

Sometimes trouble comes in the form of the opposite problem from the disengaged steering committee that won’t interact. It comes in the form of another master that the CIO must serve.

Too Many Masters

Sometimes the steering committee puffs up and becomes another master for the CIO to serve. Instead of advising, informing, and suggesting, the committee tries to assert its power to instruct – rather than guide – the CIO in what needs to be done. Many a CEO has had to manage this with a board of directors. On the one hand, the board of directors in an organization is the ultimate authority, but on the other, they’re only effective when they allow the CEO to make the calls they need to make and only intervene when it is appropriate.

IT steering committees don’t have the power of a board of directors, but even so they try to assert a level of control that would be inappropriate. Here the CIO must acknowledge the feedback but ultimately explain that the steering committee’s recommendations aren’t the final word. Ultimately the CIO reports to the CEO, not the steering committee.

In the end, the effective steering committee is like a board of directors in that it supports the CIO and the IT mission out to the organization. They’re bought in like a board of directors is when it has invested in the success of the organization.

Buy In

While the feedback and advice from the steering committee is valuable, the real value is in helping to build buy-in for the priorities of IT – and that not everything can be a priority. Building the buy-in that IT only has so many resources, and that those resources need to be allocated to the business areas based on need, is an important step to building sustainable relationships between IT and the business.

In a strange twist of fate, one business division thought that the CIO was trying to dictate their priorities with the steering committee. When the word “priorities” was swapped out for “capacity management,” the division leader joined in the conversation to make sure that IT knew about their needs and how IT could help.

Partners

When you can get the right people in the organization on the IT steering committee, the whole tenor of the conversations can change. Instead of IT being an order taker from the business – or dictating what the organization can and can’t do – IT becomes a key enabler for the business. Few IT organizations really dictate what the organization can and can’t do – but it can feel this way at times when IT conveys what it can and can’t support.

When the IT organization is already seen as a partner, there may not be a need for a steering committee.

Alternative Steering

Sometimes a steering committee isn’t even a steering committee. In effective organizations, the feedback needed to guide the IT department comes in the form of an agenda item for existing operational and strategic meetings. There’s no need to have something separate for IT if it can fit into the existing organizational management approaches.

It’s not that these CIOs get a free pass to do anything they want – or at least avoid getting feedback. It’s that the feedback they get comes directly as a part of normal operations rather than needing yet another meeting. This level of integration is healthy inoculation against “shadow” IT.

Shadow IT

In most large organizations, there’s some level of information technology work going on outside the IT department. Some level of this is right and appropriate. The business hires technically savvy people and they handle some of their own problems. It creates challenges, however, when these technically savvy people don’t work with centralized IT. That is, instead of viewing central IT as the partners that provide the core services that the business unit IT needs, they see centralized IT as a competitor, an enemy, or an impediment.

When the business and IT are in partnership, there’s no need to be competitive. IT does some core functions and business unit IT builds on those platforms. When there’s a solution to be created, or purchased for the business unit, all the parties sit down at the table and find the best solution for the organization. One of the best ways to do this is to align the mission and values.

Mission and Values

Almost every organization has a corporate mission statement. Whether it’s posted on the walls or buried in the employee handbook, it’s there. However, very few organizations live out their mission and values. Very few are able to build partnerships based on a shared understanding of what the organization is on this Earth to do – and not to do.

Powerful organizations build coalitions based on the idea that we’re all in this together, and so there’s no need for competition. Once there’s a mission and values in place, it’s possible to create a roadmap that’s effective for everyone.

Roadmap

IT, like the rest of the organization, can’t be all things to all people. There are fixed resources, and therefore a fixed capacity for new projects. By establishing a roadmap – and getting steering committee buy in – the friction is shifted from the gap between IT and the business to the gap between different areas of the business. By establishing a roadmap, everyone knows when their projects will get done – and what is ahead of them in line. Instead of arguing with IT about getting a better position, they can negotiate with other business units to get a better spot on the roadmap.

They can also become advocates for additional IT capacity so that their projects can be done sooner. By allowing the business to drive the roadmap, there’s the ability to have the business itself be champions for temporary or permanent changes in funding.

The challenge with this roadmap process is that sometimes it leaves internal cost optimization projects in IT under-appreciated and under-funded.

Managing the Mix

Every IT budget includes operational line items and developmental line items. The operational line items change when you implement cost reduction programs, switch vendors, or find a better way to buy the resource. However, all of these are projects that – if IT doesn’t get an appropriate voice at, the steering committee will die – can represent real cost savings to the organization over the long term.

Managing the mix of operational costs, investments in new solutions, and investments in cost optimization is a real challenge. If you optimize costs, you’re not delivering new functionality to the business. If you’re always focused on getting the business features, then you’ll have high operating costs. The reality is the mix of projects is dictated by the organization and what it needs to keep IT effective.

In the end, the steering committee is designed to help surface the business and IT operational issues in a way that the entire committee can design a roadmap that everyone can live with. If you can get that, then you know you’ve got an effective IT steering committee.

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