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Why the role of project sponsor needs to be better defined

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There are many misconceptions about undertaking a programme or project sponsor role effectively. An acquaintance recently gave me an account of their recent experience.

They had recently been appointed to his first sponsor role on a major project. They told that they were in charge of developing the business case, realising the benefits, setting the vision and managing senior stakeholders – both internal and external.

“I was excited and passionate about the purpose of the project and enthused to drive it forward. I struck up a good relationship with the delivery project manager and felt good about the overall team and relationships.”

As a first-time sponsor, they had been told by their boss that it was a crucial role, and that a sponsor needs to be recognised by the organisation as leading the programme.

Unexpected changes

They chaired one of the early stage gate reviews. Some of the presentations regarding scope, outcomes and benefits from the project manager were not what they had briefed the team on.  After the review, they challenged the team and found out what had happened.

The date that the new business service would go into operation had been put back six months. The project manager had learned of it the day before from the head of projects, after a recent organisational board meeting and a personal demand from the ops director.

“The scope of work now included some “bells and whistles” that I had previously fought hard to exclude. In my opinion, they would lead to an increase in costs with little or any impact on forecast benefits. The project architect explained that this was a demand in the recent architectural review from the head of sponsorship (my line manager).”

One of the major external stakeholders had registered a formal complaint by letter about the project. The external comms lead explained that the letter had been sent to the CEO and had been shared with the director of PR, who had then shared this with the corporate comms team.

“To say I was emotional is an understatement,” they explain. “I oscillated between anger and demotivation. I felt completely undermined.”

The actual role

My acquaintance decided to bring it up with their boss the next day, outlining their frustrations. The head of sponsorship explained a few home truths.

The only person that could be held truly accountable for the project benefits and enhanced business unit performance was the operations director, who had P&L responsibility. He was effectively the ‘executive sponsor’ but had insufficient time to devote to each project.

My acquaintance’s role as ‘sponsor’ was, in effect, that of a sponsor agent, supporting the executive sponsor to carry out his duties with certain delegated accountabilities and day-to-day responsibilities.

“The executive sponsor and I had failed to recognise our respective roles. Consequently, we failed to establish an appropriate relationship. I needed to stay close to the executive sponsor to keep abreast of the latest strategic issues and Board decisions, which were often made during corridor conversations and strategic meetings to which I was not invited. I immediately contacted the executive sponsor to arrange a meeting in his diary so we could ‘start again’.”

Defining the sponsor role

Sponsors can add or destroy value. The sponsor is a delegated authority role and is effectively ‘borrowing’ money from the business to invest in a project that will produce benefits in line with strategy. The board therefore needs to hold the sponsor to account for ensuring the benefits are realised, and to take the appropriate action if they aren’t.

Perhaps we should also stop using the title ‘sponsor’ in isolation as I suggested in my previous blog. Everyone has their own definition of what it means. Instead, we need to be more precise about the role we are referring to, like the executive sponsor and sponsor agent in my acquaintance’s story.

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Image: wowomnom/


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