Everything you wanted to know about project sponsorship but were too afraid to ask

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Posted by APM on 9th Feb 2016

The first SWWE event of 2016 was held at BAWA, with a good attendance of 50 members. The importance of project sponsorship and the role of the project sponsor to the success of projects are often not well understood by either the appointed sponsor or the project manager and the project team.   

Our speakers that evening were Peter Johnson, an independent consultant and volunteer with APM’s People Specific Interest Group (SIG), and Jill Poyton who works for Network Rail and is the senior sponsor for electrification in the South West.  Peter discussed the theory behind project sponsorship and Jill shared her experiences as a real life sponsor.

Peter started the evening with a review of sponsorship, or as he also termed it: applied leadership. The sponsor’s role is to provide the interface between the organisation and the project to provide leadership, decision making and guidance. It is definitely not an armchair role. Peter rephrased one of John F Kennedy’s quotes: Ask what your Sponsor can do for You, AND ask what You can do for your Sponsor.

There are a number of sources which attempt to define the role of a sponsor, including the APM BoK, Prince2, and MSP, all of which agree that the sponsor is a senior role accountable for ensuring the work is governed effectively and delivers the objectives that meet identified needs. 

The audience was asked to consider which of the NAO common causes of failure were related to poor sponsorship. The audience identified that lack of effective stakeholder engagement and lack of senior leadership were key. The audience were then asked to identify which APM competences were related to sponsors.

The discussion next focussed on the implications of the sponsor, project manager and organisation were out of synchronisation, and the importance of organisational competence. The audience was then asked to consider which Prince 2 and MSP principles related to sponsorship.

APM’s ‘Directing Change Guide’ highlights the role that the sponsor has with ensuring effective governance of projects. 

Three important roles were the emphasised. What the sponsor does for the organisation, including; setting the culture, owning the business case, maintaining strategic fit, focus on delivering benefits and providing assurance. What the sponsor does for the project manager, including: timely decision making, clarifying the business context, providing resources and managing relationships. And what the sponsor does for stakeholders, including; communications, relationships, ensuring user and supplier representation.

Peter recognised the excellent work of the Governance SIG and the ‘Directing Change’ Guide and indicated that the People SIG was interested in how sponsors acquired that role. Peter emphasised that the sponsor is not alone, that they are supported by the project board or programme board in decision making and leadership.

Following Peter’s review of the ‘theory’, Jill described her role as senior sponsor for Electrification of the West of England. Jill explained how her role as sponsor sat between the client, The Department for Transport, the stakeholders and the project delivery organisation, whom she instructed.

Jill then described the key elements of her role.

Firstly, to understand the big picture: to inspire the project team, to bring clarity and to get back to basics; to get the project back on track if it got distracted. She described the benefits of  electrification: to increase train and passenger numbers to cope with increasing demand, to reduce maintenance costs of trains and track, and to reduce pollution. UK had very little electrified track compared to the rest of Europe.

Secondly, to understand your delivery organisation: to understand who does what, and to bring focus on the end goal, to understand the change control process and which levers to pull, and to get to know the individual project managers. The PM’s know what is going on better than the programme managers. Jill meets with all of the PMs Monthly to go through their concerns and issues so she can deal with problems quickly.  Her quarterly report to the Rail Regulator is usually based on her conversations with the PMs rather than the formal reporting system.

Thirdly, to make decisions: ask questions, be interested, don’t be afraid of the detail when you need to, you don’t need to be an expert to understand the issues, know when to make a decision to prevent delays. Jill described the example of bridges being too low for the overhead cables to pass underneath them, and ‘listed’ ones which cannot be replaced. Nothing is too hard or expensive, even with having to lower the track.

Fourthly, to be clear on your role: a gatekeeper, not a technical expert, as listener, a leader. Focus the project team on identifying and designing workable solutions. Take advice from discipline heads, listen to experts.  Provide leadership to help prevent the project team losing their way.

Jill summarised the role of the sponsor as: reconciling the requirements of different clients using the business case as a decision informing tool; being accountable to the authorising panel for delivery of the project; being accountable for the project budget throughout the lifecycle; to develop and maintain the business case.

Her role as sponsor fits between the Department of Transport, as client, the Network Rail asset Heads, and the various infrastructure projects to ensure they deliver the required benefits.

The evening was a great opportunity for project managers and practitioners to gain a better understanding of the importance of the project sponsor to the successful delivery of projects, what a project sponsor does for the organisation, the project manager and the stakeholders. The sponsors main role is to facilitate the project team deliver the benefits the client requires.

It was good to see that Peter’s view of the theory, matched very well with Jill’s experience as a real life project sponsor. 

The presentations can be viewed either on the Resource Page of the APM website and in PDF format below and the results of the 4 audience tasks are attached, together with wrap up questions and answers..
 

 

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