Project sponsorship: making projects work

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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.

Sarah Coleman

Posted by Sarah Coleman on 25th Aug 2011

About the Author

Sarah Coleman is a Chartered Project Professional, Fellow and former Trustee of APM. She has over 30 years’ experience of commerce, projects, programmes, transformation and strategic initiatives across public and private sectors and in central government in the UK and internationally.  She is an experienced project and programme leader, and works with the Infrastructure and Projects Authority as an Associate Director.  Sarah is also a Major Projects Reviewer for the Government's Major Projects Portfolio.  

Sarah is a Visiting Fellow at Cranfield University.  She is also a Published author and researcher ('Project Leadership', APM Publishing 2018; 'Organisational Change Explained', Kogan Page 2017; 'Project Leadership', Gower 2015; 'Dealing with Power and Politics' in Business Analysis and Leadership, Kogan Page 2013; contributed to 'APM Body of Knowledge 7th edition', APM Publishing 2019).  In 2014 she relaunched the APM's National Conference for Women in Project Management and led on the event for 5 years.  

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