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Project sponsorship: making projects work

What does a global engineering company looking to develop their project management methods, a global manufacturing business introducing project management for their new product development lifecycle, and a national retailer going through a major and complex business transformation programme all have in common, apart from the obvious project management?

Many businesses give considerable thought, investment and effort towards the professionalism of their project management community, and to determining and developing project management processes which are operationally fit for purpose. However, the same cannot be said for the development of project sponsors and the clarification of the sponsor role. Often directors or senior managers who have authority to initiate and sponsor business critical projects dont understand their ongoing responsibilities in relation to sponsorship. Ive not often seen organisations that are aware how to develop the skills of their leaders and seniors regarding the big influence they can have on project success. Many do not get involved in basic areas such as project status; when specific support is required they are conspicuous by their absence; large, complex projects can start with impressive impetus and strong sponsor presence, then are quickly discarded when the next high profile project appears.

Generally, the sponsor role can have a tremendous impact on project success. However, in my experience, the sponsor role is very unclear in many organisations as are the appropriate levels of authority and responsibility, and the personal attributes, behaviours and capabilities needed. Trying to find a single person to be the unblocker (who owns the business case, can be the business conscience and make things happen for the project) is a tall order.

Sometimes, the sponsor is not very involved in the project for a variety of reasons typically around available time and priorities. Sometimes, they are too involved and try to act as a sort of super project manager, which generates its own issues. How does a sponsor successfully walk the line?

the sponsor from hell a micro manager

theyve given me a sponsor who has no authority and very little interest in responsibility

our sponsor was really involved at the beginning, but now he seems to have a completely different set of priorities. We face a continuous battle to re-engage his interest.

he keeps treading on my toes when I need a clear view of the target. How can I get him off my back?

I am frequently faced with recurring questions which businesses have regarding the project sponsorship role: in which area, and at which level, of the business to identify sponsors; how to develop appropriate models of sponsorship for different projects, depending on their size and complexity; how to educate potential sponsors and encourage appropriate behaviours; how to keep the sponsors interest engaged with the project when there are other calls and priorities on his/her time; how to balance the role of the sponsor with that of the project manager; how to measure the success of the sponsorship role; at which point in the project lifecycle to identify and educate the sponsor. All these should be clarified and agreed in advance of the project delivery, rather than done on the hoof not just to the benefit of the project but also to safeguard the nominated sponsor in what can be a career defining role.

Projects can certainly succeed without sponsors but it can be a painful, stressful and thankless task if there is no one around to clear the path and fly the flag at senior levels, especially for high cost, high value, high profile projects.

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  1. David West
    David West 06 March 2012, 05:23 PM

    One reason why the sponsor role is very unclear in many organizations may be the relative lack of guidance available on the subject. I did an Amazon search, whilst preparing an author proposal a couple of years ago and found that there were over 35,000 books on Project Management and only one on Project Sponsorship. Project sponsorship is a vitally important ingredient in project success and a sustained programme of education is necessary. That is why I wrote my book on the subject which I hope will be of value to members and, through making projects work, to society as a whole. My book is also published by Gower. http://www.gowerpublishing.com/isbn/9780566088889 

  2. Richard Young
    Richard Young 12 September 2011, 03:41 PM

    I agree with Sarahs penultimate paragraph.  OK, hands up I am massively over simplifying things but  so much of this is about defined roles and responsibilities (with folk then being held accountable).  Set the terms of reference up front and then one, at the very least, has a baseline to measure performance against. 

  3. Martin Samphire
    Martin Samphire 29 August 2011, 08:59 PM

    I agree with a lot of what Sarah says.  I do take issue with the comment that projects can succeed without sponsors.  My view is that they cannot as the fundamental measures of success for a project has to be the measure of success of the sponsor they are inextricably connected.However I do agree that projects can succeed with a poor or poorly defined sponsor so a sponsor can succeed even if he / she has been poor in undertaking the role.  But the question will always be could the project have been even more successful with good / strong sponsorship? David West, in his comments on Sarahs blog, mentions the APM Governance SIG publication, Sponsoring Change which provides guidance and checklists on answering a number of Sarahs questions.  In addition the APM publication Directing Change is being revised and will shortly be re-issued.  A major part of the guide is around project sponsorship as the SIG sees this as a fundamental issue to improving governance.  This publication suggests some basic questions to ask about the maturity of the sponsor role in an organisation which have come out of examples of both good and bad sponsorship.   I know most project people (particularly project managers) are frustrated by poor sponsorship.  However good sponsors do exist I have worked with some and there are some key issues that we can / should learn from them.  However we also need to understand the role, when undertaken well, is lonely as the nature of major change projects is usually about taking a business in a different direction different to the previous direction of travel that many of the senior and middle manager colleagues had been part of creating / and are delivering.  Lonely as it is often a crusading role where there is a need to build support for your religion.  Lonely as there are always pinch points in every programme where some crucial business decisions need to be made that do not get everyones support (or understanding).  Whether a CEO or project manager, we can all play a part in encouraging better (and better understood) sponsorship by empathising with sponsors in this respect. Where I have had experience of good sponsorship it has often been in a career defining role for the individual where the distractions are not allowed to become apparent as the project is their main emotional focus and the necessary passion, energy, drive are clear to see and felt by others.  In my experience this is a key differentiator of a good sponsor as they impose their influence on the contextual aspects of the project which primarily concern people behaviours and culture.   Martin

  4. Patrick Weaver
    Patrick Weaver 26 August 2011, 08:24 AM

    Whilst the involvement of a committed, supportive and caring sponsor is the ideal situation, project professionals can do a lot to help themselves by learning the art of advising upwards. This is the subject of a new book published by Gower: Advising Upwards: A Framework for Understanding and Engaging Senior Management Stakeholders; see: http://www.gowerpublishing.com/isbn/9780566092497 It's likly to be a very useful read....

  5. Duncan Spink
    Duncan Spink 25 August 2011, 05:29 PM

    I would also argue that the importance of the project sponsor is directly proportional to the level of urgency of the project.   My Project Management MSc dissertation looked at the management of urgent projects, and senior management sponsorship from the outset of any urgent project was observed to be the defining critical success factor.  The research observed that the list of CSFs changed from the start-up phase of an urgent project to the execution phase but, at all times, senior management sponsorship and support is the most important factor for project success.