What is sponsorship?

Sponsorship of a project, programme or portfolio is an important senior management role. The sponsor is accountable for ensuring that the work is governed effectively and delivers the objectives that meet identified needs

  • APM Body of Knowledge 7th edition

Sponsors have a misunderstood role; they can create or destroy value for a business.  They directly link the corporate direction of the business and project objectives.  They determine the value of any business proposal translating these through projects into business-as-usual activities.  Being an advocate for the project, they importantly communicate with stakeholders and communities about their ever-increasing demands and are accountable for the business benefits delivered through projects.  They are the “oil in the business gearbox”

  • Sponsoring Change, Second Edition. The Association for Project Management

The effectiveness of the project sponsor is the best single predictor of project success or failure

  • National Audit Office. Annual review of projects. 2015

Challenges with project sponsorship

Many projects face challenges to do with sponsorship, and often it seems to be a challenge in finding the right balance between the Sponsor being absent or not involved enough in the project, or them being too involved to the point of micromanaging the project or undermining the project manager. The sweet spot is finding that balance where the Sponsor is an actively involved critical friend to the project manager, who champions the project, removes blockages and empowers the project manager.

There can be several reasons for these challenges in finding the Sponsorship sweet spot, these include;

  • Because Sponsors are inherently senior people in the organisation they are inherently time poor and often do not have the capacity to commit sufficient time to the project
  • Often Sponsors do not know what is expected of the role, meaning they might either believe it to be a more symbolic “sign off gateways then disappear” role or the complete opposite, i.e a role with day-to-day management responsibility
  • Remote and hybrid ways of working can create barriers and disconnects between the project manager and Sponsors and can make it difficult for the Sponsors to be involved n the right way, and to feel like they understand what is happening in the project

If your delivery is suffering from an ineffective or absent sponsor, it is important to find out the reasons why your particular is happening.

During our APM Accredited Change Management Practitioner course, we discuss the questions that we must ask to understand the root cause of the problem.

The Root Cause of an Absent Sponsor

Whereas the second was not reported among the participants in the PMO Community Event it is likely that in some cases and for some Sponsors disengagement or absenteeism from the project is a symptom of a lack of belief in the project or its objectives. This is probably most common where Sponsors are appointed, or where the Sponsorship is thrust upon them without them having any say.

Whatever the reason, there are ways to help our Sponsors get engaged:

  • Ensure there is a clear, and shared, understanding of what their role is. What is its purpose and boundaries? What does good look and what is the expectation on their involvement? Consider a workshop that helps them to understand the role in full, and in the context of the wider organisational picture such as the APM Accredited Wellingtone Sponsoring Successful Projects
  • For every project ensure there is a kick-off meeting with the project team so that roles and responsibilities can be clearly defined and agreed upon and expectations set. Ensuring that processes, procedures, and meeting cadence is repeatable will help Sponsors to have a similar experience with each project, making it easier for them to engage.
  • Encourage the use of different communication methods to offer flexibility and build a two-way dialogue between the project manager and Sponsor (and PMO). Little and often is usually best. Keep meetings short but focused.
  • Focus on the value the Sponsor brings to the project and how they support successful delivery. Celebrating successes and benefits realisation milestones will help Sponsors to see and feel their contribution.

The PMO Perspective

Sponsors are Customers of the PMO just like delivery teams and managers. This means that it is the responsibility of the PMO to ensure that they understand their Customers and find opportunities to eliminate situations where sponsors do not have the capacity to carry out their roles.

This can be achieved by applying good portfolio management practices, ensuring a good balance of initiatives both in terms of expected business value and capacity, and providing services that allow Sponsors to understand and carry out their role, whilst recognising their need for help and support at times too.