Think back to your most recent successful project. What factors contributed to the desired outcome? A clear purpose supported by a detailed plan? Access to the right resources at the right time? An engaged team? A little bit of luck? Although a number of elements underpin project success, access to an active project sponsor is the most important, and perhaps, the most elusive. If you are struggling to work with your project sponsor, read on for practical tips and insights to leverage this relationship.
Who is a Project Sponsor?
Often holding a senior position within the organization, the project sponsor is responsible for initiating and approving the project and supporting the project manager during execution.
The project sponsor identifies the business need behind the project, helps the project manager to keep work on track, and ensures the organization enjoys the full benefits of the final deliverables. The project sponsor should possess a strong appreciation of your organization’s strategic goals, understand their role as sponsor, exert influence, and have some project management experience.
It also important to consider the personality, temperament, and skill-set of any project sponsor. Some key attributes to look for are:
- A strategic, innovative mindset
- High emotional intelligence and self-awareness
- Excellent communication skills, including negotiation and conflict management
- Strong decision-making.
The role of project sponsor is not a full-time position, and the sponsor will have other responsibilities outside of the project, making their time extremely valuable.
Project Sponsor Roles and Responsibilities
Unlike the project manager, who oversees the team and daily execution of key tasks, the sponsor helps to create the right environment to support the project manager. This support can take a variety of forms such as:
- Aligning the project with business strategy
- Participating in project planning
- Developing a clear, concise problem statement
- Ensuring the purposed solution resolves the agreed issue and only the agreed issue
- Articulating and consistently sharing an inspiring vision to motivate the project team
- Assisting with resource management, including budgets and the allocation of skilled team members
- Ensuring the project is launched and executed in accordance with established standards and best practices
- Tracking project progress and taking corrective action if needed
- Addressing any last minute change requests which could delay or derail a project
- Cultivating buy-in and stakeholder engagement
- Providing timely, informed input into key decisions to drive the project forward
- Resolving issues and conflicts beyond the scope of the project manager’s authority
- Evaluating the project’s success upon completion
- Celebrating and rewarding success
- Mentoring the project manager as needed.
With such a wide and varied remit, the project sponsor is the true owner of the project and is ultimately accountable for its outcome. It is little wonder that a project sponsor can make or break a project. Both KPMG (2010) and the Standish Group (2012) identified the absence of a project sponsor as the principal reason for project failure. At BrightWork, we have also identified sponsorship as a critical success factor for project management improvement.
At this point, you may be wondering why engaging with a project sponsor is so tricky. Let’s look at some challenges and obstacles.
Common Challenges When Working with a Project Sponsor
Developing a beneficial relationship with your project sponsor is complicated for a few reasons.
- Typically, project sponsors are assigned to a project before work commences, meaning project managers rarely have the opportunity to choose their sponsor.
- Linked to this challenge is the reality that sponsors are sometimes appointed to projects they are not invested in as the project needs a sponsor to get approval.
- The project sponsor may be taking up the mantle of ‘accidental project sponsor’, an individual who lacks project management experience but becomes a project sponsor due to their seniority within your organization.
- Whilst project managers can turn to several sources of knowledge and training, no comparable resources are available for project sponsors; they simply do not know what is expected of them.
- Project sponsors are busy individuals involved in several projects. They may not have the time to provide useful advice and support to struggling projects.
- If your project sponsor is working at the wrong level or lacks influence within your organization, they will be unable to push through boundaries when needed.
If this list induces feelings of despair and panic, don’t worry! Instead, ask yourself what you can do about this situation. As Isaac Asimov wrote:
It has been my philosophy of life that difficulties vanish when faced boldly.
Project managers working with disengaged or unhelpful sponsors have two choices: forge ahead as best they can or ‘manage up’ and help project sponsor fulfill their role. Below are four steps to help you do this.
Four Steps to Working with Your Project Sponsor
Step 1: Set Expectations
Before launching a new project, meet with your project sponsor to decide how you will work together. This step is particularly important if you have never worked with the sponsor or if the sponsor is taking up this role for the first time. As noted above, project sponsors cannot help if they do not know what is required.
It is good practice to hold this meeting even if you have worked together previously or if your sponsor is quite experienced. Every project is different and requires alignment from the outset.
Use the meeting to establish roles and responsibilities, identify required resources, and establish a communication plan. Review and refine the project plan with the sponsor, identifying key milestones and check-in points. Finally, ensure the sponsor understands why their input and commitment are important to the project.
Step 2: Kick-off Meeting
In their Chaos Manifesto 2012, the Standish Group outline 50 secrets to being a great sponsor. The first secret is to ‘Inspire’ the project team, which 58% of IT executives rated as highly important to the project. Ask the project sponsor to attend the kick-off meeting with the team to share their vision for the project and its proposed outcome. The attendance of the project sponsor also indicates the importance of the project to senior management, a useful motivator!
Step 3: Communication
As the project progresses, revert to the communication plan established in Step 1 to keep your sponsor engaged and informed. Communication channels include status meetings, automated reports and dashboards using a collaborative tool such as BrightWork, and impromptu conversations. The plan should also outline processes for addressing urgent situations or decisions.
Your sponsor is time poor so every communication should have a clear objective and required actions. Be clear, concise, and direct.
It is also important to examine the communication style and preferences of your sponsor, and adjust as needed. Does the sponsor prefer meetings to email? Are they highly analytical and love lots of charts? Perhaps the sponsor just needs a high-level summary? Remember to incorporate the language and terminology used by the sponsor.
Step 4: Keep Them Involved
In addition to status updates and reports, ask your sponsor for their insight and guidance periodically. Seek their input when dealing with issues or a difficult team member, or when brainstorming alternative approaches. The best project sponsors coach and nurture project managers, and have extensive knowledge to share. Reaching out to your sponsor keeps them involved in the project, and helps to build a rewarding relationship for all involved.
By now, we have established why a project sponsor is paramount to your project, common challenges to avoid, and how to cultivate a mutually beneficial relationship with your sponsor. The next challenge is implementing some of these suggestions in your organization to improve sponsor engagement and project portfolio management.
Firstly, review your relationship with previous or current sponsors. What did and did not work for you? What challenges did you encounter? Do you have any tools or processes in place when working with sponsors? Taking stock of your experiences is key to establishing a better way to move forward. Remember – with a little planning and determination, you can work effectively with sponsors.
Secondly, check if your organization offers any training and support for new sponsors. If support is available, examine the information and make suggestions for improvement. If support does not exist, ask your PMO to develop resources and training.
Thirdly, become a project manager that great project sponsors want to work with. Deliver results that speak for themselves and cultivate relationships with senior management.
With so many elements to manage, it is easy to overlook your relationship with the project sponsor, especially if they are absent or difficult to work with. Project sponsors can hamper or elevate your project. By investing in this important relationship, you will enjoy more project success and deliver better solutions for your organization.