Active Project Sponsorship

 ” Do not walk behind me, I may not lead. Do not walk in front of me, I may not follow. Just walk beside me and be my guide”

What a rare species it is – a truly active Sponsor and as rare is a business that has recognised the value in this role and instituted it into how project changes are managed in. If you do nothing other than make this role come alive in 2012, your project success will significantly improve.

Below is an extract from my book “Mastering Change through Project Management “ This book can be purchased as a hard backed copy, simply email us on or an on line version.

Getting The Right Sponsor

Project Sponsorship is an active role, and the selection of the Sponsor is critical to the ultimate success of the project. This article summarises the role, the challenges of Sponsorship, and how to attract the right person for the job.

What Does The Sponsor Do?

The Sponsor must be accountable; otherwise he/she runs the risk of being a Sponsor in name only, a passive sleeping partner who awakes only at points of crisis. So taking on the Sponsor role means accepting overall responsibility for achieving the project goal and benefits, working through the Project Leader and Team.

 An effective Sponsor will:

  • Start by ensuring that the project has a defined and viable goal, which has been agreed by the Business
  • Communicate the need for change, both to the team and the wider Business
  • Select the Project Leader
  • Ensure that the project continues to be a viable business proposition
  • Help remove obstacles to progress
  • Support the project team in securing committed and aligned stakeholders
  • Motivate, coach, and challenge the Project Leader so that they emerge from the project with enhanced project management capabilities
  • Formally approve and review the project as it progresses through its lifecycle
  • Suggest and authorise changes to the project in the light of changing business circumstances and new insights
  • Build the project work into the Project Leader’s objectives, appraisal and rewards.

 What Should The Sponsor Not Do?

  • Wade in and do the project work themselves – often a temptation
  • Only appear at points of crisis, rather than working continuously to eliminate or reduce the probability of crises occurring
  • Make – or overturn – project decisions without the project team and Leader’s involvement and understanding.

Why Is Sponsorship So Important?

Without clear, strong Sponsorship a project is unlikely to have the means to gain and retain support in the business, overcome the tendency to resist change, and secure necessary resources.

The absence of, or inappropriate, Sponsorship is consistently cited as a key reason for project failure, as it leaves the business without the vital link between its Vision and strategies and the projects which should be there to deliver them.

Project Sponsorship also offers the opportunity for multiple projects to gain from the expertise, experience and contacts of the most senior employees.

Also through their partnership with Project Leaders, Sponsors offer businesses a great opportunity to internally develop project management skills and progress the leadership role towards that of coach and facilitator.

It all sounds great! But unfortunately, good Sponsorship is often harder to find than good project management, and significantly less investment, focus and support is given to employees trying to fulfil the Sponsor role. Is that the case in your Business?

Key Challenges of Sponsorship

Here are just a few…

Staying off the pitch – So many Sponsors report that they find it tough to limit their involvement to advising, questioning and coaching, as opposed to doing the project work. But if the Sponsor gets on the pitch and plays, what happens? They risk disrupting and undermining the team.

The Sponsor temporarily takes over, making decisions and setting direction, overriding the authority of the Leader; only to withdraw again when other priorities take precedence or something more exciting comes up – leaving the team less able than before to work together.

Expectations of leadership – It can be tough to abandon the traditional authoritative style, especially when the project is in an area in which the Sponsor has expertise and experience, and if the project leader expects the Sponsor to take control, solve their problems, have all the answers and give direction.

The dual challenge for the Sponsor is to wean themselves, and often the project leader, from an “I say – you do” relationship to a richer partnership, pooling different perspectives and working together.

Decision-making buying into this role means accepting that the Sponsor should not take unilateral decisions just because their power or network makes this possible – an effective way to alienate the project leader and team.

Being challenged – if the Sponsor has done a good job, the project team will feel genuine ownership for the project and be fully engaged. It will be a team that openly challenges, questions and evaluates – including the Sponsor’s own contributions.

The “sandwich” factor – the Sponsor can be truly caught between an enthusiastic project team – seeing their project as the highest priority, deserving visible and urgent attention – and the senior leadership team, for whom it is just one of many.
The Sponsor challenge is to show the project team where their project fits into the “big picture”, and help them understand the processes surrounding top level decision-making and changes to plan, without dampening their enthusiasm and sense of support.

The Selection Process

Typically Senior Leaders/Directors will both select Sponsors and take on the Sponsorship role. This opens up the danger that selection is nothing more than a friendly, “Can you take this one on, Jim?” at the end of a board meeting.

A formal selection process highlights the value placed on the right choice, with agreed criteria, role clarity and training support. Some sample criteria are listed below.

Does the candidate:

  • Hold the power to sanction and legitimise the change?
  • Have the organisational credibility to help make these changes happen?
  • Have experience and/or expertise in the areas being changed?
  • Have personal passion for, and commitment to, the proposed changes?
  • Have the willingness to commit to an active role?
  • Have the time to fulfil the role?
  • Have absolute determination to see the changes through?
  • Have the flexibility and willingness to adapt their leadership style to meet the needs of the project leader, team and stakeholders?

 Key Questions To Ask

If ever you are asked to be a Sponsor, or you are a project leader trying to convince someone to step into this role, here are some critical questions:

  • Do I believe that this project is worth pursuing?
  • Am I sufficiently dissatisfied with the status quo?
  • Why does the business want to pursue this project?
  • What Business strategy is this project aligned to?
  • What budget opportunity and constraint apply to this project?
  • Is there anything about this project which is already agreed, committed to, or cannot be challenged?
  • What conditions must this project meet to remain in the project-portfolio?
  • Has the business previously attempted to make a similar change? What happened, and why?

The Sponsor Hunt

Ideally, Sponsor selection is undertaken by the Leadership team at the point a new project is formally approved and placed in the project-portfolio. Thus the Sponsor is engaged and informed about the change, and takes charge of selecting the right Project Leader to partner them in progressing the project to a successful conclusion.

However, if you find yourself as Project Leader hunting for a Sponsor in order to push through a desired project, here are a few pointers:

Avoid the tendency, however tempting, to approach the most senior person you know, as this person is unlikely to have the time to support your project. Yes, you may earn your project some initial credibility, but in the long run having someone actively on your side and understanding how the project fits with the rest of the business will help the project far more.

Provide the person you do approach with a clear summary of the project, even if this is based on estimates and outlines, including:

  • the project goal
  • the need for the change
  • the benefits you feel will result
  • the risks of not going ahead with the project
  • the risks of going ahead with the project.

Explain clearly what Sponsorship involves, and why you believe their Sponsorship would increase your project’s chances of success.

Show them the role outline, and encourage a real debate about the demands of the role and the relationship between Sponsor and project leader.

If you are nervous about talking this through in case it puts them off, remind yourself that it is better to set realistic expectations upfront than to have them fail you once work commences. You’re after the right person, not just a prestigious name. An uncommitted Sponsor is likely to pull the project, distance themselves when things go wrong, and never be there when you need them.

Making The Best Of It

So what if you are landed with a Sponsor who wants to be Sponsor in name only (except maybe when the credit is being handed out)? All is not lost. You can do much to increase the odds that the relationship is accepted and ultimately productive. For example:

  • Make sure the Sponsor understands the importance and the benefits of this project for the Business
  • Be honest about your own feelings and concerns, and share your expectations for the partnership
  • Agree upfront how you will work together and how often you will meet to review progress. Formalise this in a Partnership Contract, so that each party understands what they have agreed to
  • The Sponsor may not have been exposed to this type of co-operative working relationship before. Book them some training, or include them in Team training events, to help them understand the advantages it will provide, both for them and for the Business
  • Invite the Sponsor to attend some team meetings or even join in social events. Making them feel part of the group will increase their interest and commitment. But ensure that the Sponsor’s time is spent effectively, that meetings are relevant and run smoothly
  • Keep them in the loop – and tell them the good news as well as the bad!
    Informing them on progress, and giving them regular feedback from the team and stakeholders, lessens the risk of a situation developing which might take time and trouble for them to resolve. And nothing is worse than a long silence, followed by a panic alert when things go wrong.

The Sponsor role is critical to keep a project aligned to Business needs. It can be demanding; it can also be enormously satisfying. Ultimately, it depends on the Sponsor’s commitment to support the team in its endeavours, while retaining a broader perspective on the successful management and implementation of change.

I hope this is of value to your project endeavours.

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