The State of Project Management Report 2021 tells us one of the top 10 challenges for organisations is “poorly trained project sponsors”. This has featured consistently in the top 10 since we started publishing this research 5 years ago. In 2015 the National Audit Office in its Annual Review of Projects stated “The effectiveness of the project sponsor is the best single predictor of project success or failure”
Training and development of project management capability are invariably focused on the Project Manager. Those taking on the role of Sponsor are often forgotten. Assumptions are made that these senior decision-makers are already equipped to work as a Sponsor. Anecdotal evidence from project managers highlights frustrations, with either Sponsors being absent or trying to take over the role of Project Manager.
A key step in developing project management maturity in any organisation would be training for those taking on the role of Sponsor. How can we expect someone to be successful in a role unless they have been trained? The Sponsor needs to be fully aware of their role and responsibilities.
So here are six key tips for successful project sponsorship. If you are a frustrated project manager, then perhaps you might share this list with your shiny new project sponsor.
Remember, the Sponsor owns the business case. This means they champion the project and the benefits it will bring. They are passionate about delivering this benefit and will support the project manager (& project team) to help them succeed.
1) Represent the organisation
The sponsor represents the organisation. This means they must ensure the project is delivered in a way compliant with defined PPM processes and governance. Projects must comply with agreed Stage Gates, financial approvals and budgeting principles. The sponsor should also ensure the project aligns with the organisational culture, codes of conduct and ethics.
2) Represent the investment
The sponsor owns the Business Case, including development, approval and maintenance through the project lifecycle. The Sponsor should be able to convey the overall project vision, key costs, benefits and business drivers. Equally, they should understand the scale of change and how this impacts the wider organisation bearing in mind competing projects. The Sponsor must look beyond project delivery, and be able to articulate future operational costs versus benefits.
The Sponsor champions the project at the executive stakeholder/portfolio board level, ensuring the business case and benefits are fully understood & supported.
3) Provide leadership to the Project Manager
The Sponsor provides instruction, guidance and represents the organisation to the Project Manager. They should complement the delivery focus of Project Management with organisational and contextual awareness & foresight. The Sponsor should make sure the project remains achievable and should encourage the Project Manager to look for ways to improve the business case. The Sponsor should be a “critical friend” of the Project Manager.
The Sponsor provides the Project Manager with the vision, business case, outcomes, requirements and anticipated benefits of the project. The Sponsor must therefore help the Project Manager understand priorities & therefore potential trade-offs with outputs & outcomes.
4) Point of Escalation
The Sponsor must be a point of escalation for the project manager and the project team. If they encountered a risk or issue beyond their ability to resolve, they must be able to escalate to the sponsor quickly. The sponsor must react and provide leadership & guidance and escalate further if necessary. Similarly, any changes that go beyond the tolerance of the project manager must as a minimum (based on defined governance) go to the sponsor for approval (or rejection).
5) Stakeholder management
Stakeholders are defined as anyone impacted by a project. The project manager and project team will have assessed stakeholder and hopefully developed a communications plan. It is appropriate for the sponsor to participate in this process as they themselves should actively be engaged in stakeholder management as well. It is appropriate that the sponsor represents the project to senior stakeholders on behalf of the project manager and the project team.
6) Progress reporting
The sponsor should expect regular timely project status reports from the project manager. These must be critiqued, not brushed over. How is the project really doing? How come all the RAG KPIs are green (unlikely if the reporting is correct). There should be nothing wrong with the project manager showing something is amber or red, in fact, these should be actively encouraged to ensure honesty & transparency in the real project status. The project manager should see the sponsor supporting and reacting to ambers & reds, helping the project manager and the project team identify and walk a path back to green.
The sponsor, therefore, has work to do. They do not just attend a monthly meeting to eat all the chocolate biscuits. They play a critical role in the project and need to ensure they accept their responsibilities as a leader. The sponsor and project manager should discuss and agree on how they are going to work together to achieve project success, delivering the defined anticipated benefits.
We find the most enlightened organisations are those that consider training for project managers and train senior decision-makers in their role as a sponsor. Eliminate the frustrations of project managers and project teams with committed, available and knowledgeable sponsors.