I was at an executive steering committee last week as an observer. The meeting reviewed the progress of individual projects and sought to resolve issues. All normal responsibilities. However, this meeting had something unique about it, each project had a 'critical friend'.
A critical friend is a member of the committee who is assigned to work with the project team. Their job is to push the project, examine it, and make sure that things are not overlooked or miss-interpreted. At the next meeting, the project sponsor and the critical friend make reports to the committee. Each presents their findings opening the floor to a fact based and solution-focused discussion.
Characteristics of a critical friend include:
- Experience -- a friend needs to know what they are talking about to make a valuable contribution to the team and to have credibility with other members of the steering committee.
- Interest -- a friend is someone who is interested in you, your project and its success.
- Skepticism -- to be critical and not take the project teams side or point of view
- Confidence -- to be willing to say what needs to be said as sugarcoating issues or downplaying them for fear of offending the project team creates an executive sycophant rather than a helpful sponsor.
- Openness -- to the extend that being a critical friend on an issue to a project will invite others to be a critical friend on the projects that they sponsor. Critical friends need to take advice on their projects as well as give it to others.
The executive steering committee uses critical friends in two situations. At the start, when an issue was identified. Also, when the project proposes an answer or asks the committee's approval of an action or decision. In each circumstance, the committee assigned a different critical friend, an approach that helps preserve their objectivity.
At the start, the critical friend provides an alternative view of the issue, its causes and consequences. They help ensure that the project team does not overlook or undervalue the cause of the issue as well as lending their experience to the team.
The critical friend provides a similar service when the project team suggests an action or solution. In this case, the critical friend, different from the first, works with the project team in coming up with solutions based on their experience and perspective on the issue. The critical friend offers a second opinion on the proposed solution that may or may not support the project team's recommendations.
A critical friend provides an executive level check and balance across the organization and its multiple projects. It also has the effect of engaging executives directly in project issues and actions -- making the steering committee a positive part of change programs rather than a rubber stamp or modern version of the inquisition.
A critical friend also gives the leadership and projects a way to engage in a constructive manner as the critical friend now becomes part of the solution rather than just proving out the problem.