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.

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Posted by Sarah Coleman on 25th Aug 2011

About the Author
Sarah Coleman is a Fellow and former Trustee of the APM. She started her career in ICT and draws on over 25 years’ experience in the project and programme arena. She specializes in improving the performance of projects, programmes and change in organizations, and in developing project, programme and change professionals. Sarah is a Visiting Fellow at Lincoln University, and is regularly invited to speak at business schools, conferences and professional body events. She is a published author “Project Leadership” (Gower, 2015), "Dealing with Power and Politics” for “Business Analysis and Leadership” (Kogan Page, 2013) and is currently editing a book on organizational change (due to be published February 2017).

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