The APM Body of Knowledge defines a sponsor as the role that is “accountable for ensuring that the work is governed effectively and delivers the objectives that meet identified needs”. Sponsors champion the work and own both the business case and the realisation of the benefits and value resulting from the project. Ultimately, they are the person with executive oversight for the work.
Active and supportive sponsorship is a significant factor in delivering successful projects – with the sponsor providing the leadership and political influence to ensure that the work delivers on its promises.
But there are many sponsorship challenges, including a lack of definition in what is expected from a sponsor, but also poor behaviour on their part, including ignorance of the project or, at the other extreme, micromanagement.
Here, we offer sponsors ten practical tips on how to be active, engaged and effective.
1 Be a good role model
Senior leaders often do not realise the impact of what they say and do on those lower down the organisation. Being a behavioural role model and setting the right tone for the project team can influence how many others behave. Encourage open, regular and honest communication; use positive, constructive language, even when challenging poor project performance; and be tolerant of mistakes and encourage a culture of learning from mistakes.
2 Champion good sponsorship practices
How does your organisation communicate a common definition and understanding of the role of the sponsor? How does it ensure sponsors demonstrate the right behaviours? How are sponsors selected and trained? What is the authority given to them? How is their impact measured? If your organisation is lacking in any of these areas, champion their improvement. Persuade other senior leaders of the need to establish clarity, and define and document the role of the sponsor and practices that support effective sponsorship.
3 If you cannot commit to active involvement, don’t be the sponsor
If you are too busy, decline the role – a busy sponsor is often an absent sponsor. Also, if you lack interest in the project, you will be unlikely to fully engage with it. If being appointed as the sponsor is unavoidable, consider delegating the responsibility of the role – but not the ultimate accountability – to a ‘sponsor’s agent’, who can act on your behalf.
4 Get involved as early as possible
The early stages of a project are critical to its success. This depends on developing an understanding of the project as early as possible: the goals and objectives; the process for achieving them; the resources to be deployed; and how all the elements interact. The sponsor has a key role to play in ensuring this ‘front-end loading’ is achieved, the business case is robust and viable, and thorough planning and definition has been done.
5 Build and maintain effective relationships
Regularly interact with your project manager and team, with the aim of building strong working relationships – aim to talk often and encourage a culture of open communication. Be a supportive leader and coach; develop and help build the team. A good working relationship with the project manager, based on mutual trust, is essential.
6 Receive ‘truth to power’
Stay up-to-date on the status of the project – don’t wait until scheduled reviews for updates and possibly unwelcome surprises. Encourage informal reviews and honest reporting of project status. Make it safe to ‘speak truth to power’. The flipside is the open and measured receiving of that truth. Be accessible and ensure that there are no adverse repercussions for raising issues and concerns.
7 Provide the necessary resources
Champion the project in acquiring the resources it needs. Projects operating in a portfolio environment can suffer from pressures in securing capable resources, each project competing with others for resource. A key aspect of the sponsor’s role is championing the cause of the project within the organisation to ensure it receives the appropriate priority. This could be during project set-up or in response to emergent issues.
8 Help the project team by anticipating surprises
In their anxiety to deliver, good people working hard to meet demanding goals can fail to spot the signs of failure. Sponsors operate at a level where they may spot early-warning signs. Liaising regularly with stakeholders or spending time with customers, for example, can help identify potential issues. Encourage discussion of potential early-warning signs, be they based on hard data or ‘gut feel’ in the project team.
9 Act when the project needs support
Even with the best planning, issues will emerge during delivery. Use your seniority and influence to help fix problems, particularly in areas where the influence of the project manager and team does not reach. Be the champion and advocate for the project, demonstrating a willingness to step in and help. Also monitor the wellbeing of the project manager and team and act decisively if you see signs of stress or burnout.
10 Be accountable for the results
Own the business case, the planning, the delivery and the results. The sponsor can delegate responsibility for the project to the project manager, but not the ultimate accountability. Acknowledge and demonstrate this accountability by being actively involved in the project and ensuring its success.
This blog was co-written by Carl Gavin and Stuart Forsyth.
Professor Stuart Forsyth is an honorary professor at AMBS, and director, advanced sensors, at BAE Systems Air.