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Great Sponsor + Great PM = Great Success

A sad tale of a how a sponsor/PM relationship killed a project…

~ By Lonnie Pacelli

Two business people talking

Exec identifies a need for a project and nominates self as sponsor. PM gets assigned to project and assembles project team. Sponsor is vague about problem to be solved other than "we need a new system." PM can't communicate problem to be solved to the team because he doesn't understand what the problem is. Sponsor continues to ask for more and more things to be included in project, PM doesn't have courage to say no. PM treats sponsor as "that person in the corner office" and doesn't know how to ask for help, so he escalates everything. Sponsor has to make some tough decisions, but is unwilling to do so because of the political fallout. PM provides bad information about decision alternatives so sponsor ignores him. Due to changing priorities project no longer makes sense to do, but PM lobbies to keep the project going. Sponsor loses interest because there are bigger fish to fry. PM and team are disillusioned because sponsor doesn't care. Project dies a slow death. R.I.P.

While this is a fictional story, you can undoubtedly relate to most of these things happening on one project or another in your career. The sponsor/PM partnership on a project is one of those "soft skill" factors that gets frequently overlooked when assessing a PMs skills, but is a key determinant in the success or failure of a project. Under a healthy partnership, the sponsor and PM work as a singular unit to ensure the project gets what it needs to be as successful as possible using only as many resources as absolutely necessary to secure success. Under a less than healthy relationship the project will undoubtedly cost more in time and money assuming it even gets completed at all.

Throughout my career I've been both a sponsor and a PM and have first-hand experience in how this relationship needs to work from both sides of the desk. Through my experience, I've locked down on ten truths, which I feel are crucial to securing a healthy sponsor/PM partnership. See if these resonate with you:

Truth #1: Great sponsors clearly articulate a root-cause problem to be solved. Great PMs make sure the team knows (and remembers) what problem is being solved.

No surprise that great projects start with a great problem statement. Where things go awry is when there's fuzziness about the problem statement between the sponsor and PM and when they aren't completely unified on the problem being addressed. The sponsor needs to be clear about the problem, the PM needs to keep it at forefront and never allow the team to drift from solving the problem.

Truth #2: Great sponsors ensure the solution solves the root cause problem. Great PMs don't allow solutions to lose focus.

It's so easy for a project team to get all lathered up in the coolness of a solution and the incremental value which can be had by just taking on a bit more scope here and there. I love when project teams can kill two birds with one stone, but at the same time the sponsor and PM need to be very disciplined about keeping the project team focused on solving the root cause problem and not allowing scope to explode due to emotional frenzying.

Truth #3: Great sponsors enforce a "good enough" mindset. Great PMs don't use "good enough" as an excuse to cut scope.

Using a "good enough" mindset means being very conscious of not gold-plating a solution and putting incremental work into a feature that doesn't yield incremental benefit. PMs, project teams, and sponsors alike fall subject to gold-plating to increase coolness or solve out-of-scope problems. The sponsor needs to continually remind the team to not gold-plate and to do what's required to solve the problem. At the same time, the PM can't use good enough as license to trim scope to solve a budget or schedule problem. Certainly budget and schedule problems will happen, but the PM can't hide behind good enough and unilaterally trim scope based on his or her convenient definition of what good enough means.

Truth #4: Great sponsors ensure the project has the right resources to get the work done. Great PMs articulate clear resource requests and "right size" the ask to the need.

No news flash here; projects need people and money to get things done. Where things go awry is when project needs are poorly articulated, lack credibility, or are flat-out ignored. This is one of the most important areas of an effective sponsor/PM partnership. The PM needs to be crystal clear about what resources are needed to complete the project, thoughtful about alternatives to fulfilling the need, and objective about the consequences of not filling the need. The sponsor needs to be convinced of the resource need, then needs to either support the PM to secure the resources or understand and accept the consequence of not securing the resources. This truth is a massive failure point in projects with both the sponsor and PM being culpable.

Truth #5: Great sponsors hold the PM and team accountable for results. Great PMs embrace the accountability and enforce it with the team.

Any leader worth his or her salt understands the concept of accountability. Most sponsors joyfully embrace this role and effectively drive accountability across the team and with the PM. The PM has a specific responsibility to embrace the accountability, demonstrate respect for the sponsor with the project team, and cascade the accountability throughout the project team. Too often project managers will bad-mouth the sponsor to the project team and undermine his or her credibility as sponsor which creates ill-will between the sponsor and the team. The sponsor needs to drive objective accountability and the PM needs to demonstrate respect and ensure all team members are held appropriately accountable for results.

Truth #6: Great sponsors are on top of the big issues and stand at the ready to help resolve them. Great PMs articulate issues clearly and timely and escalate only those they can't solve.

Too many times in my career I've seen a project sponsor be treated as if they were royalty. The PM would make the trek up the mountain to report progress to the sponsor in hopes of pleasing him or her and getting a nod of approval from his or her highness. Here's the reality: the best sponsor/PM relationships are when both the sponsor and PM recognise the sponsor plays a specific role on the project and fills needs that he or she is best suited to fill. The sponsor needs to be on top of the big issues which are appropriate for him or her to be addressing and be "at the ready" when the team needs an issue to be addressed. At the same time, the PM needs to make sure that only those issues which are appropriate for the sponsor to address are being escalated. Too often the PM will use issue escalation either as a means of "covering your butt" thus putting the sponsor on notice for an issue or will escalate inappropriate issues due to flat-out laziness. The PM needs to escalate only those which cannot be solved at his or her level and ensure the sponsor is given as much time as reasonable to put the issue to bed. The sponsor needs to be ready and willing to act.

Truth #7: Great sponsors are an advocate, coach and battering ram for the project. Great PMs know how to leverage a sponsor and listen to the sponsor's counsel.

Some of the best sponsors I've worked with provide an open door to coach and counsel the PM. The sponsor shows an active interest in the PMs success and deliberately works to help the PM grow as a professional. They also serve as an ambassador for the project to other areas of the organisation to ensure other stakeholders and constituents are supportive of the project. Their interest is much more holistic and strategic; they want to help the organisation be better and help the PM be better at his or her job. At the same time, the best PMs see this relationship as an opportunity to grow personally and professionally and actively seek out and listen to a sponsor's coaching.

Truth #8: Great sponsors willingly make tough decisions even if unpopular or politically charged. Great PMs provide clear and unbiased alternatives, information and consequences to support decision making.

On virtually every project there will be at least one decision which the sponsor has to make which will be unpopular with some organisational faction. The PM has a clear responsibility to provide the sponsor with an objective point of view on decision alternatives, allow the sponsor as much time as reasonable to make the decision, and, while being politically aware of consequences, not be politically driven by consequences. The sponsor needs to ensure alternatives are appropriately vetted, the facts and consequences are understood, and then make the decision as timely as reasonable. The PM needs to be believable and objective, the sponsor needs to be courageous and timely.

Truth #9: Great sponsors don't opportunistically increase scope if the project is going well. Great PMs keep the team focused on delivery and don't claim victory too soon.

In the 2006 Olympics, snowboarder Lindsey Jacobellis had the gold medal all but won. On the last jump of her race Lindsey does a hot dog move and trips at the finish line only to walk away with the silver medal. Victory was in sight, cockiness crept in, then something bad happened to blow it. Projects are no different. The sponsor and PM need to jointly ensure that victory doesn't get claimed too soon, that scope control doesn't get sloppy, and that the team stays focused on driving the project to conclusion. The sponsor needs to resist the desire to add "just a little feature" at the end and the PM needs to not allow the team to relax.

Truth #10: Great sponsors continually evaluate priorities and are willing to pull the plug on a project if it no longer makes sense to do. Great PMs don't get emotionally tied to a project and don't lobby to keep it alive if it should stop.

Sometimes a project no longer makes sense to do. Whether it be about changing priorities, overly aggressive benefit statements, or under-estimated costs, both the sponsor and PM need to keep an ear to the railroad tracks and ensure the project still makes sense to continue. If the sponsor has bigger fish to fry he or she needs to either continue to commit to the project or kill it. The worst thing a sponsor can do is allow a project to die a slow death due to disinterest. It not only wastes time and money but also creates disillusionment with the team because management isn't demonstrating support. The PM needs to keep a "business first" attitude and recognise that sometimes a well-intentioned project no longer makes good business sense to continue. Lobbying to keep a low-priority project going will just delay the inevitable.

The sponsor/PM partnership is the most important relationship determinant of a project's success potential. Both the sponsor and the PM need to be acutely aware of the relationship and recognise the necessity of working together to better secure a successful outcome and provide value back to the organisation.


Lonnie is an internationally recognised project management and leadership author and consultant with over over 20 years experience at Microsoft, Accenture and his own company, Leading on the Edge International. Read more about Lonnie, subscribe to his newsletter, see his books and articles, and get lots of free stuff at www.projectmanagementadvisor.com


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