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Count your blessings for effective sponsorship

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It was just before Christmas 2016 and for a bit of fun Colin D Ellis asked across LinkedIn what a project manager’s festive song would be. I gave it a bit of thought and responded with “White Christmas” by Bing Crosby, as it reminded me about project sponsorship. As the lyrics go “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas, just like the ones I used to know”, and I thought this rings true for sponsors – “I’m dreaming of project sponsors, just like the ones I used to know”. And, just like a white Christmas, I hadn’t seen one (i.e. a project sponsor) in a while and I guess what I am trying to say is that project sponsorship is highly desirable – just not very likely!

This may sound like a flippant statement or a generalisation, yet I have worked with many organisations over the years providing half-day executive (C-Level) briefings of what a project sponsor is and what is expected of them on a project, and this volume of interactions alone gives me the view that the importance of project sponsorship is not widely understood or acknowledged by organisations. When I am delivering training to project managers I often do an exercise which involves giving each syndicate in the room 10 cards with common reasons for project failure on them (lack of sponsorship, poor communication, poor planning etc), and each group is required to rank these cards from 1 (high) to 10 (low) the biggest contributor to project failure, using their own experiences. Whilst each group always comes up with different rankings, I can say with authority that ‘lack of sponsorship’ is consistently high up the rankings (always top 3). And this is across many organisations in many different industries, in many different countries - so this view is not isolated to one particular company/industry/country.

But don’t just take my word for it, there is plenty of research available that states the importance of the role of a sponsor on project success. Here are just two:

  • The Project Management Institute (PMI) “Pulse of the Profession 2017” report states “Actively engaged executive sponsors continue to be the top driver of whether projects meet their original goals and business intent”
  • The Association for Project Management (APM) “Conditions for Project Success” report identified 12 project success factors – in my view the following factors all require effective sponsorship: Effective governance, goals and objectives, commitment to project success, capable sponsors, secure funding, supportive organisations, and competent project teams.

If anyone reading this is wondering what a project sponsor is, I will pose to you the question I pose to all organisations to answer what a sponsor is:

“What is the project sponsor accountable for?”

I sum up in one sentence: “A project sponsor is accountable for the benefits realisation”. So, if your business case claims that by doing this project you will make £x extra profit/saving (benefit – keeping it financial for illustration), then the sponsor is accountable for whether or not £x extra profit/saving is made (benefits realisation). The other questions I pose are “when will this £x extra profit/saving be realised? Is it realistic for the sponsor to be accountable over this time period?” As accountability need to remain post-project!

So, the evidence points to a need to build capability and capacity in project sponsorship. But what does the statement “A project sponsor is accountable for the benefits realisation” actually entail? And “what is the best way to build sponsorship competence”?

Taking the first of these questions, consider the following (not-exhaustive) list of what is expected of a project sponsor:

  • Effective leadership (of the project)
  • Good governance (i.e. ensuring the correct policies/procedures/roles/reporting is in place and adhered to)
  • Effective decision making
  • Being available (as advice/direction is needed that won’t coincide with a pre-scheduled project review)
  • Displaying the correct behaviours (e.g. supportive, influencer, communicator, delegator etc)
  • Having the authority to make decisions, including to change/stop the project (or know their limits and escalation routes)
  • Strategic thinker
  • Commercial acumen
  • Organisational-specific context

If you are wondering why specific disciplines like benefits management, risk management, quality management etc are not listed, whilst these are all essential parts of a project, these would all be under ‘governance’ of which the sponsor need to ensure its effectiveness.

Now for the second question: “What is the best way to build this sponsorship competence?” 

Let me state that the thought of sending sponsors on a training course has always horrified me! Given the definition of a sponsor, think about who your own sponsors are, or who would be candidates for the role. They are likely to be senior individuals in your organisation – how would they react if you suggested they sit a two day training course and pass an exam in order to be able to sponsor a project? If an individual needs a training course and to pass an exam to be a sponsor, then they shouldn’t be a sponsor!

This does not mean help isn’t needed – it just needs to be done in the right way. The executive briefings I mentioned above are a good way to give an overview of the role of a sponsor (especially as time can be a limiting factor). However to embed the role of a sponsor and build long-term capability and capacity a more structured development programme is a good option.

As I opened talking about Bing Crosby, I feel I should give him the final word. Did you spot my other reference to one of his songs? No? Take a look at the title of this article: “Count Your Blessings” is another Bing Crosby song!

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  1. Ian Cribbes
    Ian Cribbes 02 February 2018, 04:56 PM

    Dear Ian, thank you for a very interesting article. I am currently working as part of the Stakeholder Engagement Focus Group (part of god People SIG). During my presentations to fellow project professionals I try to emphasis the vital role of the Project Sponsor.