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The project sponsor, a hinge or hinderance to success?

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Many of the common causes of project and programme failures* and project success factors are related to the work carried out by sponsors including effective governance, creating a link with strategic priorities, articulating a clear vision, leadership and stakeholder engagement.

In APM’s Sponsoring Change, 2nd edition the effectiveness of the project sponsor is cited as the best single predictor of success or failure with Mark Carne, Chief Executive Network Rail, agreeing by pointing out that sponsors ‘can create or destroy value for a business’.

These reports highlight the importance of the sponsor role, though does the success of a project really hinge on the contributions of sponsors? Or can sponsors be more of a hinderance to the successful delivery of a project?

In July 2020, the APM Governance SIG hosted discussions with executive sponsors and delegated sponsors to unpack the role sponsors play within the project profession. The discussion focussed on the role as a liaison between the business and the project and the panellists raised examples of what works and what can cause strain with the delivery team.

Sponsors as a hinge to success

Sponsors play an important role throughout the life of a project to support, shape and integrate the project to realise the benefits for the business.

For the project to succeed, the delivery team will need support from the business. The executive sponsor is appointed by the board to deliver the desired project outcomes and realise the benefits of the investment for the organisation. They own the business case, hold the organisational control of the project and are accountable to the board for success. They can unlock issues and focus support as required.

The sponsor also plays a part to create the right conditions for the project to succeed. Where appropriate, a delegated sponsor or team is appointed by the executive sponsor to carry out tasks on their behalf to help ensure project success. They will act as the day-to-day liaison between the project delivery team and the business and key stakeholders. The delegated sponsor can scan across the technical, economical, commercial, organisational and political influences and spot opportunities and threats to the project.

The sponsor role provides the project with a critical service to connect into the business and maintain the conditions for success with stakeholders. All of this sounds really positive, so what could go wrong?

Sponsors as a hinderance to success

Our panellists identified areas where relationships and behaviours can be strained and can hinder the success of the project. These include where responsibilities are not clear between the sponsor role and the delivery role, where sponsors are seen to abdicate their role to others, step in to fill a perceived deficiency in delivery leadership or competence, or worse, where sponsors get consumed in the detail of delivery. If unresolved, these can hinder project success.

Here are some practical suggestions on how to overcome these challenges.

  • Trust and relationship over life cycle of project

Both trust and the right behaviours are essential but take time and effort to develop. The relationship should not be taken for granted, nor should the evolution of the relationship be overlooked through the life cycle of the project. In the early stages of the project, the sponsor will identify the goals and shape the project to align with the business objectives; they may then need to step back as the design develops and during delivery to give space for the project team to do what they do best – deliver to time, cost and quality constraints. During this time, the sponsor team will keep their eye on the project context, desired benefits and outcomes. As the delivery completes and the outputs are integrated into the business, the sponsor will again take more of a leading role to ensure that the benefits are realised.

  • Agree responsibilities

Agree responsibilities upfront through a robust RACI (responsible, accountable, consulted, informed) matrix and importantly understand and respect what was agreed. Nothing will break down a relationship faster than pointing blame when things go wrong rather than stepping-up and accepting the agreed accountabilities.

  • Recognise differences

The RACI should reflect the distinct roles and contributions each role makes to the project. The sponsor role focusses on the outcomes of the investment for the business and the project manager role focusses on the delivery of outputs within the time, cost and quality constraints. One panellist gave an analogy to a dance club. The delivery team is on the dancefloor engaging directly with the music whereas a smaller group of sponsors is on the balcony looking down overseeing the action. The point is that everyone is at the same club enjoying the same music though in different ways. The delivery team are in the detail to deliver the outputs and the sponsors are engaging across disciplines and stakeholders at a strategic level.

  • Use sponsors to assess trade-offs

These differences should be exploited for the benefit of the project. The panellists pointed out that sponsors can be effective in assessing trade-offs between the business and the project to bring different views together and give direction to the delivery team. Sponsors must clarify the business priorities to help shape decisions and also define what is ‘good enough’ to help the delivery team work within the time, cost quality constraints.

  • Keep sponsors informed

Sponsors need to maintain a level of information about the project to engage effectively with the business and stakeholders. Project managers should encourage their sponsors to be curious about the project delivery and should even suggest areas where they think sponsors should be the most interested. These will be areas where there is impact to the desired outcomes for the business or stakeholders.

These approaches stress that success will only come when the sponsors and project managers work together, and that project managers can do a lot to help sponsors be effective. After all, although most of the common causes of project failures and project success factors are related to the work carried out by the sponsor team, all of them will be carried out by project professionals.

To find out how we can support sponsors in the project profession join the APM Governance SIG 

*Cabinet Office Review Guidance: Common causes of programme/project failure (2012)

Image: bizvector/Shutterstock.com


This blog was written by Richard Zavitz with input from Martin Samphire.

Martin Samphire is the owner and Managing Director of 3pmxl Ltd, a consultancy specialises in helping clients to transform their business using structured P3M approaches. Martin is the APM Governance Specific Interest Group (SIG) Chair.

The APM Governance SIG has developed guidelines for Governance of Project Management, including 'Directing Change', 'Governance of Co-Owned Projects', 'Sponsoring Change' and ‘Directing Agile Change’. He authored chapter 19 on Governance in the 2nd edition of the Gower Programme Management Handbook (2016). He is also a member of a voluntary group, the P3M Data Club looking to improve Business Integrated Governance (BIG).

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