Understanding the Project Sponsor Role

Many executives become project sponsors, because they want a new product or a service to improve their business operations. Everyone expects the sponsors to know their role, and how they are supposed to work. While there are qualifications required to become a project manager (PM), there are none for a sponsor. The sponsor’s role is an important role, but what exactly are they meant to do?

The Realities of Project Sponsorship

Project sponsors are usually the executives who instigate a project proposal or a business case. They are typically a business executive who is usually called upon to arrange the funding for the project and potentially receive the project benefits. While project sponsors support the aims of the project, they have no understanding or interest in the intricacies of project execution.

Some sponsors have many time demands and are unable to spend the necessary time on the project. Many sponsors simply delegate this responsibility to one of their managers. This often results in the PM not receiving the right level of support or direction from the sponsor. Or, decisions take a long time and project roadblocks are not addressed in a timely manner. Consequently, the project suffers.

Some sponsors mistakenly think that their role is to supervise the PM and approve every decision. As a result, the sponsor stars micromanaging the project.  This demoralizes the PM and the project team, and, again, the project suffers.

The Sponsor’s Role in Project Success

There are many reasons why projects fail. Even when projects are completed, many often fail to deliver the promised benefits. Business case adequacy, project management (or the PM’s skills), technology complexity, unrealistic expectations by the business and/or IT leaders are all factors that lead to unsuccessful projects. Another, often under appreciated, reason is inadequate project sponsorship.

The Standish group Chaos Manifesto for 2013 states that:

The single most important advancement to improve project success rates is the increase in competency of the executive sponsor.

The project sponsor plays a critical role in project success.  I have never seen a major project succeed with a poor project sponsor. Good sponsors have a tremendous positive impact on the project.  Organisations invest significant energy in choosing or developing a PM with the right skills and capabilities. However, the role and responsibilities of the project sponsor are not well understood.

What does Project Sponsor do?

The project sponsor is a key link between the project team and the executive management of the organisation.  A good sponsor would ‘own’ the project and has the accountability to make sure that the benefits promised in the business case are realised.

Put very simply, the project sponsor:

  1. Champions the project,
  2. Owns the business case, and
  3. Realises the benefits.

A Project Champion

A sponsor is the principal champion or advocate of the project. The sponsor articulates the project vision and explains how the project vision aligns with the organisation’s overall strategy. Every organisation has multiple stakeholders with different agendas, goals, and priorities. A sponsor has to understand the diverse stakeholder interests and negotiate common ground that all stakeholders agree upon, and collaborate to deliver.  Effective sponsors bring together these diverse interests in such a way as to deliver the best value for the investment. Sponsors advocate for, and get, stakeholders’ commitment for the project.

Aligning the interests of stakeholders is not a one-off exercise. As the project progresses, new factors emerge, and new decisions and adjustments need to be made. The sponsor acts as a liaison with the stakeholders by: explaining how the project will fit into their strategies and operations; conveying project progress and warnings; and taking steps to discuss stakeholders’ concerns.

Define the Project Scope

The first thing a sponsor has to do is define the project scope. The project scope or project charter reflects the agreed common ground.  The project sponsor defines what the project must do and sets the project goals. The sponsor must then translate these goals into project deliverables that the PM and the team understand. When the PM understands the project goals and the deliverables, it removes ambiguity. Clarity enables effective scope control. Understanding the link between the project and organisation’s goals gives the team a sense of purpose. A clearly defined purpose can become a major motivational tool.

Establish and Control the Project Budget

The project budget represents the investment or price the organisation is willing to pay to get the benefits from the project. Sponsors play a key role in securing the first project funding. They control and manage changes in scope and project variations to make sure that the project still represents a good value for the effort and investment. Effective sponsors work with the PM to: manage and balance the project budget; find cheaper ways of delivering; and cut complexity. Effective sponsor ensures that project effort is not wasted on low value activities/ functions.

Keep the Project on Track

The sponsor needs to make sure that the project remains on track. S/he needs to meet the PMs regularly to check the project progress (e.g. the deliverables, timelines, risks and issues) and hold the PM accountable for meeting the project aims. When the project has challenges, the sponsor needs to offer support and guidance to the PM.  Effective sponsors remove roadblocks from the project, secure access to decision-makers, or secure resources for the project. These sponsors attend key meetings and steer decisions. Sponsors usually stay accessible, available and supportive throughout the project so that the PM is able to share the progress and concerns about the project in an open and honest way.

The sponsor also helps to keep up team morale by celebrating success, giving public recognition to team members, and demonstrating visible support of the project.

Avoid Micro-management

Keeping the project on track does not mean micro-managing. A sponsor authorises the project and the PM executes the project. Clear expectations about reporting, decision rights, and trust need to be set to avoid meddling by the sponsors. The success of a project is a result of a good working relationship between the sponsor and the PM, a common purpose, and continued reporting on the project’s progress.

Manage the Politics

An important function of the project sponsor is helping the project navigate an organisation’s political landscape. This involves securing timely decisions, funding and resources, or working with others to cut resistance or objections to the project. Sponsors communicate the project’s progress to the executive management. They help the PM escalate issues to the right decision makers.  Sponsors mediate and help resolve issues and conflicts.

Realise the Benefits

Projects typically involve a number of trade-offs, such as changes in scope. The test of a successful project is the value or the benefits that the project generates. IT projects deliver capability that needs to be used to get benefits. The sponsor who has secured the funding is responsible for ensuring that the business benefits are realised. This can mean user training is provided, or work practices are changed to use the new functionality.

Summary

The critical role sponsors play in the success of a project is generally under appreciated. There is also ambiguity about the role of project sponsors. A project sponsor acts as a project champion who: communicates and promotes the project purpose and benefits; helps keep the project on track by controlling, guiding and supporting the project; and ensures that the project benefits are realised by the organisation. When the success of the project and the success of the sponsor are aligned, the chance that a project succeeds is improved.

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