Is your sponsor effective?

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We all know that having an engaged and effective sponsor is the key success factor to the successful outcome of a project or programme. If you are a project or programme manager how do you know if you have a good sponsor? If you are unclear who is your sponsor, how do you spot him or her? If you are a board member (and ultimately responsible for the overall portfolio of change) and holding project/programme sponsors to account, how do you judge their performance?

The recently published second edition of the APM guide Sponsoring Change states:

‘Programme or project sponsors are accountable for the realisation of desired outcomes and benefits from any investment. They provide the governance link between the organisation’s senior executives (the board) and the management of each project’.

So, unless there is true budget and business accountability for outcomes, can a person really be held accountable as the sponsor? Just because it walks and talks like a duck, is it still a duck?

But good sponsorship is not just about ‘having the money’. Sponsors need to be ‘on the ball’ and intrinsically linked into the organisation’s strategy and objectives so that decisions on the programme or project are tightly aligned to business direction subtleties – the crucial ‘context’ into which the programme or project manager is delivering. And when business direction changes, or challenges or crises occur on the project, the sponsor needs to be able to respond with clarity and confidence, not behave like a ‘rabbit caught in the headlights’ and causing panic in the delivery team through indecision or lack of feel for the issue.

How many times do you hear that the sponsor was ‘too busy’ to attend the steering group or programme board? The sponsor needs to give enough time – not to necessarily understand the minutiae of the project solution – but to accessing the impact on the business-as-usual (BAU) organisation and benefits. A standard question in the sponsor’s armoury should be “so what is the impact of ……?”. In a similar light, the standard question in the project manager’s armoury should be “why….”. And the sponsor needs to be able to provide a clear and concise response in business/benefit/outcome/impact terms rather than in solution terms.

As an organisational board member, I would want to hear an update from the sponsor on the progress of their project or programme – not just passing on a written report from the project or programme manager – but in business, benefits, outcome and impact terms. If they cannot do that then alarm bells start to ring and I question how much they really understand the impact of their initiative on the business strategy and performance and how involved they are in the initiative’s governance. Also, how well are they providing leadership, clarity and passion to the delivery team?

How much governance and involvement of the sponsor is enough? Too little and alignment to organisational strategy and direction may be weak and the delivery team may go astray – on the other hand too much of the wrong type of governance and behaviour from the sponsor and the project team might feel aggrieved.

The five key attributes of an effective sponsor are given in the latest edition of APM’s Sponsoring Change guide:

  • Understanding: the sponsor must understand the role, its significance and the project context, risks, etc.
  • Competence: the sponsor must have the knowledge, and skills to fulfil the role. For example, suitable characteristics include strategic view, leadership, collaborative champion, and an understanding of the business case and the needs of the project’s client(s).
  • Credibility: the sponsor must be accepted by stakeholders as suitable for the role via demonstrable experience in the field of the project area.
  • Commitment: the sponsor must be able to give the role the personal time and priority necessary to fulfil the duties and responsibilities.
  • Engagement: the sponsor must be willing to take personal ownership of the project, ensure that effective communications are in place, and be able to influence people toward a successful outcome irrespective of organisation unit.

Additionally, Sponsoring Change describes how the ‘sponsor provides accountability, confidence, transparency and understanding to the business’ and also describes ‘how the sponsor provides leadership to the project and project manager and creates the conditions for the project manager and the project team to succeed’.

There will be more about these specific responsibilities in a later blog/article. Sponsoring Change 2nd edition, published by APM, is available to buy from the APM Bookshop. APM member can claim 10% discount on the list price.

So, as a project manager or board member, it’s worth reflecting on how good your sponsor is – added value or a ‘waste of space’?

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Posted by Martin Samphire on 6th Sep 2018

About the Author

Martin is Director of 3pmxl Ltd. He is an experienced project, programme and portfolio management practitioner and particularly in their application to business transformation. He is a committee member of the APM Portfolio Management SIG and Chairman of the APM SIG on Governance – he is one of the team that authored Directing Change, Co-Directing Change and Sponsoring Change.

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