Steering commitee meeting

A steering committee meeting brings together representatives of relevant institutions to steer a project and monitor its implementation.

Area of application

Most technical cooperation projects establish a steering committee (SC) in the beginning of their implementation. The steering committee meets at regular intervals over the lifetime of the project.

Some typical objectives of a steering committee meeting include monitoring the advancement of a project, adapting or realigning the strategic and operational planning (if necessary), ensuring that the resources needed for achievement of the project objectives are provided, raising issues with relevant decision-makers and resolving any obstacles to the implementation of the project.

Interaction

Steering committee meetings are characterized by a high degree of interaction because they entail exchange of information, discussions, negotiations and decision-making.

One of the tasks of moderation is that steering committee meetings are conducted in the spirit of collegiality, cooperation and professionalism. At the same time, in some cases, steering committee meetings become an arena for power games between conflicting interests or rivalry between steering committee members and/or the institutions they represent. Moreover, often a SC brings together institutions which organisationally are hierarchically related to one another but are on an equal footing within the project. The clash of these two different “logics”-- the vertical one of the organisational context and the horizontal one of the project context -- can be one source of tension.

Owing to this complexity, a skillful moderation (see “moderation script”, see “welcoming”) often plays an even more important role for the efficiency of the SC than in other working contexts. On one end of the spectrum, if the interaction in the SC is dominated by hierarchy or by the persons with the most influence, decisions will be taken quickly, but there is the risk that a partnership spirit would not be developed and SC members would not feel committed. On the other end of the spectrum, if members discuss intensively but without someone helping to focus the exchange and ensure that important issues are addressed and decisions are made, then there is a risk of inefficiency and even frustration, in case of conflicting points of view. Therefore, it is essential to find the right balance, which in turn depends on the overall context (project experience of the SC members, maturity of the team, project phase, topics, etc.).

The choice of a moderator depends on the context and the culture. If an external moderator is preferred, it is essential that he or she be officially endorsed by the political partners, not only in a written form, but also personally in the first SC session. Moreover, it is advisable that before starting, the moderator explain how he or she understands his or her role and intends to implement it. In that context, defining a few working and communication rules and visualizing them might be helpful. If one of the SC members moderates the SC meeting, it is advisable to stay alert and diplomatically help to support the communication process, whenever necessary. Rotating moderation by different members of the committee is a good way to strengthen participation and ownership.

 

Virtual mode

Offline and online steering committee meetings follow the same principles. As power dynamics also exist in a virtual context, online SC meetings put additional demands on the moderator. Even though a meeting is held virtually and not in partners’ premises, symbolics should nevertheless be incorporated (e.g. who opens a meeting).

Online SC meetings require more concentration and should, therefore, be shorter in time. Whenever possible, more frequent but shorter sessions should be preferred.  A potential positive side effect of more frequent contacts is establishing familiarity and trust between the SC members.
The option to hold a SC meeting virtually opens up new possibilities to increase the level of exchange and interaction without having to invest too much time and resources (for example, alternating face-to-face and virtual meetings).

It might also be useful to consider holding a hybrid SC meeting, if some project partners can meet in person and other (international) partners join virtually. In such a case, it is best if a (second) moderator is present at the in-person meeting and ensures that the participants joining online can fully participate.  Such a hybrid format poses specific challenges and risks, for example generating different group dynamics between the members who meet face-to-face and the ones connected virtually, which is more likely to happen at the beginning of a new project when members do not know each other well yet. These risks should be considered carefully in the design and the moderation of the meeting.

 

METHODS

Steering committee meetings and workshops have a lot in common when it comes to moderation and technology (for instance, aspects regarding breaks and directly addressing participants). Therefore, it is recommended to consult also the workshop format for additional useful tips.

Information and tips which more specifically apply to SC meetings, in general, and to a virtual mode in particular, are presented below.

Every steering committee session should have an agenda which should be sent to the SC members in advance. If the steering committee has agreed on Terms of Reference for its work and decision-making, some agenda points might be already pre-defined there (e.g. “update on progress” or “overview of next steps”. Whenever possible, it is helpful that SC members agree on the main agenda topics already at the prior session as well as review the agenda jointly at the beginning of the meeting to give the opportunity of adding important last-minute topics.

Where applicable, the discussion points to be taken up by the SC should be included in the agenda.  The draft agenda should be approved by the political partners in advance (especially when it comes to sensitive issues) in order to avoid conflicts during the meeting.

The updates of the project implementation which will be presented at the meeting are to be prepared in close cooperation with the project partners.
It is advisable that technical discussions take place among technical experts prior to SC sessions, for example, in the context of technical committees. In case technical questions cannot be solved at this level and need the intervention of the steering committee, then the specific technical question can be listed in the agenda, so that the SC members can prepare. Another possibility to clarify technical issues would be to virtually connect the technical expert(s) during a time slot of the steering committee meeting.

In case of frictions or conflicts between SC members, it is also advisable, whenever appropriate, to create space for or encourage bilateral clarification prior to the SC meeting.

Whenever particular topics have to be addressed (e.g. midterm or final self-evaluation, development of concrete solutions for a given problem, exchange and working out aspects like a shared vision or how to ensure the sustainability of activities and results), breakout sessions offer the possibility of closer cooperation in small groups, in which more reserved members also have a chance to speak.

 

PRACTICAL TIPS

  • To support networking, invite SC members to connect 30 minutes before the start of the meeting for a virtual coffee break.
  • It is advisable to start the meeting with a short activity which helps create a positive working atmosphere before moving to more technical or political discussions. For example, each member shares one or two relevant news updates from his or her institution.

  • Prepare as much as possible in advance and concentrate during the online SC meeting on making progress on central issues and discussions (rather than simply exchange of information which can be done in the preparatory materials). Additional content can be shared before or after the SC meeting, e.g., via links to materials or email exchange.
  • Keep it simple with technical tools: Whiteboard, Screensharing, Wordcloud, Mentimeter, etc. – the technical possibilities to conduct online meetings are almost unlimited. At the same time, the use of a large number of tools can be counterproductive. Especially in the context of a steering committee meeting, it is advisable to use as few tools as possible. Using just cameras and microphones is often sufficient. When starting a new group process, use a maximum of one external tool and, if necessary, add more options gradually. Active participation depends on creating a positive atmosphere and promoting a cooperative attitude rather than on the tools used. Even online, it is possible to generate participation with simple tools.

  • Especially in projects with a high level of complexity and in a virtual or hybrid context, a binational tandem of moderators (a German and a local moderator) can be very useful. If this is not possible, then it is advisable to look for help inside the steering committee (for example, divide tasks among SC members) and outside of the project team (for example, peer consulting). Additional tips are available in the workshop brief.

It is particularly important in the context of SC meetings to take into account the different cultural backgrounds of the members. As communication is a multi-parametric process, to be efficient it should be flexibly adapted to the overall context.

Resources

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TIME

Usually, a steering committee meeting lasts half a day (three to four hours). However, in case particular topics should be addressed (e.g. midterm or final self-evaluation, development of concrete solutions for a given problem, formulation of a shared vision or ensuring the sustainability of activities and results), the meeting can be spread out over longer period of time (one to two days or even weeks) with some sessions having a workshop character.

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BUDGET

Expenses for facilitation, such as an external moderator (if necessary), and interpretation (if necessary) need to be budgeted.

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TOOLS AND TECHNICAL ASPECTS

In SC meetings it is advisable to encourage SC members to take the floor if they have a question or a comment and use the chat as a parallel communication channel for informal exchanges or to share complementary information either with all the members or bilaterally. For important decisions, it is advisable that the SC members are individually asked to give their opinion (either via a polling tool or asked directly).

Important discussion and decision points should be visualized. The choice of a tool should be adapted to the overall situation. Most of the time, screensharing and the use of PowerPoint or Word, or even a pen and a piece of paper might be sufficient.

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HUMAN RESOURCES

The following roles are involved in organising and conducting a SC meeting:

  • Organizer:
    most often, the SC session is jointly organized by PTB and the political partner. The organizer is responsible for preparing the meeting and the follow-up, including drafting and circulating the agenda of the SC meeting and other preparatory materials,  organizing the technical aspects of the virtual meeting (e.g. sending videoconferencing instructions) as well as sending the meeting minutes after the meeting as well as any additional materials.
  • SC Chair:
    most often, the political partner of the cooperation project serves as the meeting chair. He or she officially opens and closes the meeting, introduces the main goals of the session and possibly the agenda.

Further materials

In the context of steering committee meetings (but also more generally in negotiation situations) the communication model “vertical vs. horizontal communication” developed by Peter Modler might be helpful as a reference: See https://www.drmodler.de/ and especially the book “Das Arroganzprinzip” by the same author. The model is often used in the context of communication between genders but the general principles also apply to the different logics found in the organisational versus project contexts.

 

REFERENCE PERSONS

Pascale Pouzet
Suzana Lange
Katharina Telfser

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