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Understanding the nature of sponsorship

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We’ve all felt the cold shadow of the project sponsor leaning over our shoulder asking what line 36 of our plan really means. We all recognise the sponsors’ furrowed brow and the request for a report, asking why line 36 is needed, complete with a fully costed set of alternatives and recommendations. We’ve all explained why line 36 was discussed and agreed months ago in painful detail. And having gone through all that, we’ve all experienced the same sponsor who evaporates into thin air, never to be seen again.

Did you know this kind of sponsor has a name? They’re known as ‘butterfly sponsors’, who flit and fly around projects while never fully engaging. When it was mentioned at the recent APM Sponsors’ Summit it drew a murmur of recognition from all members of the audience.

There are other types that you’ll no doubt recognise - perhaps you’ve even been one – the reluctant sponsor, who can’t turn down the opportunity for risk of what it might do to their career or the incompetent sponsor, who has no idea what a sponsor does in the first place.

The sponsor, as we know, is the person who is accountable for the business case of a project; we know they should demonstrate good leadership and communication skills, we all recognise the role as important and we know a good one when we see them. So why is it so difficult to implement?

This is what the Sponsors’ Summit looked to investigate, and the subsequent report which we’ve just launched, showed that context is everything.

While many of the competences required for good sponsorship are very similar to those of good leadership, the context, was key to the differing approaches. During the summit, three different approaches were identified.

For example, in highly complex environments, a sponsor with the ability to influence various stakeholders and network is an essential capability. The networks are often unique to the individual sponsor as they’ve built up over a long period of time, but utilising them becomes the difference between success and failure. 

Many larger projects benefit from a dedicated sponsor whose responsibility is to represent the benefit the project is intended to achieve. This is particularly true in infrastructure projects, where the benefits can often be swamped by the scale of the project being delivered.

In transformation projects, representative sponsors exists to manage the impact of the project has on business as usual. Projects contribute to an evolving journey within many organisation which both influences and is influenced by, the organisation’s dynamic culture. The representative sponsor leads organisations through the uncertainty projects can bring with the aim of finding a better way of working.

The overriding message coming from the summit, is that to avoid butterfly sponsors, career sponsors and the rest, the key is understanding the nature of the sponsorship you want before your potential sponsor commits to taking on the role. Hopefully the report will assist you in avoiding the dreaded shadow across your desk.

Download the sponsors report


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  1. Nicola Read
    Nicola Read 06 April 2018, 12:01 PM

    Agreed. We often have no choice about who we get as a sponsor and often sponsors are senior individuals within an organisation who don't take kindly to having their role explained to them. It's tricky for PMs as there are often organisational politics that have to be navigated around when it's apparent that the sponsor doesn't really understand their role and starts changing project scope and ignoring the protocols put in place to manage change.