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Project Sponsorship: Get the Sponsor You Deserve

~ By Michael L Young

Two business people talking

Many organisations mistakenly believe that it is up to the project manager to solve the organisation's problems and make the project happen. Others just hire a project manager to be the scapegoat if things go wrong. But these strategies really just miss the whole point…if the project manager got hit by the proverbial bus, the project would not disappear or cease to exist, it still needs resources and commitment.

When we talk about 'sponsors' we talk about senior managers who are prepared to be actively involved in the project and committed to its success. At the beginning of any project, the effectiveness of the project sponsor role is the best way to predict project success or failure.

A good sponsor will be clear about the project's objectives, have power (over resource expenditure) and be able to influence key decision makers to support or resource the project. They will be someone who has a sound understanding of the context in which the project or its product will operate.

The project manager and project sponsor must work closely together for the project to succeed. The sponsor will provide the scope, objectives, risk management, quality expectations and benefits realisation plans that the project manager will implement. If these things aren't understood, the sponsor discusses goals with the organisation's executive to provide clarity.

Education is important. Therefore, as a project manager, one of the key roles is educating the sponsor on the nature of project work so that they can act in an informed way on your behalf within the organisation.

A project manager can assist the sponsor by explaining costs and benefits in money terms. This makes it easier for the sponsor to use their influence to ensure the project is properly resourced.

A good sponsor will work with the PM to create a contingency plan for getting the project back on track should executive support not be forthcoming or should the situation change and the resource requirement be increased. If such a plan is not in place, the "blame" will ultimately fall back on an under-resourced PM for project failure.

So What Does the Sponsor Do?

Projects need sponsors who are leaders and can establish directions that link with long-term goals, communicate a vision both within and outside the project team, create team alignment and are focused on planning and short-term outcomes.

Because of this, the relationship that a project manager builds with the project's sponsor is the most critical relationship in any project. Simply put, a project without the appropriate degree of executive sponsorship will fail.

Organisations, and in some cases the project sponsors themselves, often confuse the roles played by the project sponsor and the project manager. This leads to the sponsor not being involved enough with setting direction and keeping the project on track or being too involved and taking over from the project manager, sometimes creating conflict.

As Martin points out, there is a clear distinction between the two:

Project ManagerSponsor
Accountable for the project team's successAccountable for the success of the project manager
Mentors project team membersMentors the project manager
Removes obstacles for the project teamRemoves obstacles that the project manager cannot remove on his or her own
"Supervises" the project team"Supervises" the project manager
Holds the project team accountable for meeting their commitmentsHolds other managers accountable for meeting their commitments
Provides direction to the sub-projectsProvides direction to the project
Resolves questions/prepares the CharterReviews the Charter
Is a liaison to the sponsor and customerIs a liaison to the Project Steering Committee or Board
Facilitates the Project Plan developmentReviews and approves the Project Plan
Defines resource requirements and negotiates with the executives for resourcesEnsures resources are provided to the project
Provides oversight to the entire projectProvides oversight to the sub-projects
Facilitates the development of the impact analysis for change requestsReviews and approves change requests
Facilitates the lessons learned process after evaluations are receivedEvaluates the project
Writes recommendations for improvementTakes recommendations for improvement to the Project Steering Committee/Board
Martin, Paula K (2005): Sponsoring a Project, Martin Training Associates

Different Roles for Project Sponsors

Project sponsors need to be involved from the start to eventual hand-over. Throughout the life of a project, a sponsor will take on many different roles. In the beginning they will "sell" the project and its benefits to the organisation. Throughout the project the sponsor will support the project manager and provide insights into the context and operation of the project to instil confidence.

During difficult times a sponsor will protect the project manager and team from political and other influences that threaten the smooth operation of the project. The sponsor will develop and nurture useful relationships inside and outside the organisation and assist to manage risk for the project.

At the end of the day, if a project doesn't have a sponsor that meets these criteria, a PM should think twice about taking it on.


Michael Young is an award-winning project management consultant, trainer and assessor and is Principal Consultant for Transformed Pty Ltd. Check out Michael's other articles at: https://www.transformed.com.au/project_management


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