What is a Project Sponsor?

The Project Sponsor is often referred to as the ‘Project Champion’. The role entails leveraging their experience, expertise, strategic thinking, and business acumen to identify projects that align with the company’s objectives. By effectively championing these projects, they lend their seal of approval to initiatives that truly benefit the organisation.

In essence, an effective Sponsor acts as a safeguard for the business, ensuring that only valuable projects are pursued. This responsibility extends throughout the project’s lifecycle, as the Sponsor remains vigilant. If it becomes apparent at any stage that the project no longer aligns with the company’s interests, the Sponsor should be quick to recognise it and advocate for its cessation.

“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”

Association for Project Management (APM)

What are the responsibilities of a Project Sponsor?

Represent the investment

As the representative of the organisation, the Sponsor is responsible for ensuring that the project adheres to established project & portfolio management (PPM) processes and governance. This involves compliance with agreed-upon stage gates, financial approvals, and budgeting principles. Additionally, the sponsor plays a crucial role in aligning the project with the organisation’s culture, codes of conduct, and ethics to ensure seamless integration within the overall framework.

Provide leadership to the Project Manager

The Sponsor should offer guidance and support to the Project Manager. They bring a strategic outlook to complement the project’s delivery focus, considering organisational context and foresight. Ensuring project feasibility, the Sponsor encourages the Project Manager to enhance the business case and acts as a supportive yet critical advisor. Moreover, the Sponsor equips the Project Manager with the project vision, business case, outcomes, requirements, and anticipated benefits, aiding in understanding priorities and potential trade-offs between outputs and outcomes.

Be the point of escalation

The Sponsor serves as a crucial point of escalation for the project manager and team. If they encounter a risk or issue beyond their capacity to resolve, prompt escalation to the sponsor is essential. The sponsor must respond swiftly, providing leadership and guidance, and if required, further escalating the matter. Likewise, any changes that go beyond the Project Manager’s capabilities must, at minimum (according to defined governance), receive approval or rejection from the sponsor.

Stakeholder management

The project manager and team assess and ideally, create a communications plan for stakeholders. The sponsor should actively participate in this process, as they are also responsible for stakeholder management. Representing the project, the sponsor acts on behalf of the project manager and team in engaging with senior stakeholders.

The Sponsor’s assistance becomes crucial when the project manager lacks the authority to resolve certain issues, such as breaches of project tolerances requiring more time, resources, or scope changes. In such cases, the Sponsor’s stakeholder engagement and negotiation skills come into play. They may have the power to adjust tolerances themselves or might need to consult other business units to secure support. Failing to engage stakeholders can lead to project failure.

Progess Reporting

The sponsor should regularly review project status reports from the manager, encouraging transparency in reporting. It’s essential to address any challenges (amber or red indicators) promptly to ensure project success. The sponsor plays a critical role in the project, accepting leadership responsibilities, and collaborating with the project manager to achieve defined benefits. Enlightened organisations prioritise training for project managers and senior decision-makers, resulting in committed and knowledgeable sponsors, reducing frustrations for project teams.

Do they know what it means to be a Sponsor? Do they believe in the change? Do they want to be associated with the change?
Outline the challenges you face and the consequence of their lack of involvement Discuss the reasons for any concerns about the change validity and the actions to take
Discuss the role and responsibilities of a Sponsor Do they have the capacity to fill the responsibilities of a Sponsor or do they see it as a nuisance?

How to help 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.

How to keep your Project Sponsor satisfied

  • Managing project sponsor satisfaction is an ongoing and dynamic task throughout the project’s lifespan, not a one-time effort.
  • Successful Project Managers recognise the need to adapt Sponsor messages to changes in the project’s context and constantly reevaluate their communication needs.
  • Communication requirements are not static; they will evolve and remain flexible during the project.
  • Be vigilant and prepared to adjust your messages and delivery methods accordingly.
  • Cultivate a collaborative relationship with your Sponsors by showing appreciation, actively listening, and validating their needs.
  • When Sponsors seem disengaged, take the time to understand their perspective and make them feel understood, validated, and appreciated to maintain their support.

How does the Project Sponsor relate to the PMO?

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.

Challenges with project sponsorship

Finding the right balance in project sponsorship can be challenging. On one hand, having an absent or disengaged Sponsor can impede progress, while on the other hand, an overly involved Sponsor may lead to micromanagement and undermine the project manager’s authority. The ideal approach is to strike a sweet spot where the Sponsor actively acts as a critical friend to the project manager. This means championing the project, providing support, removing obstacles, and empowering the project manager for success.

What are the challenges?

  • Sponsors, being senior members, often lack sufficient time to dedicate to the project.
  • Many Sponsors are unclear about their role’s expectations, leading to misconceptions about their level of involvement, ranging from symbolic sign-off to day-to-day management responsibility.
  • Remote and hybrid work setups can create barriers and disconnects between project managers and Sponsors, making it challenging for Sponsors to be effectively involved and understand project progress.

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.

How do you deal with poor project sponsorship?

  1. Be selective with sponsors: Don’t settle for any sponsor you are given; address poor sponsorship as a corporate issue and have an honest conversation with the sponsor about their role.
  2. Develop sponsor capabilities: Offer project sponsor training and mentoring, educating them in basic project management principles and encouraging regular self-assessment of their performance.
  3. Match sponsors to projects strategically: Consider competency assessments and experience when assigning sponsors to projects, ensuring they are well-suited for high-priority initiatives.
  4. Introduce accountability for sponsors: Connect consequences to actions; explore the possibility of linking a percentage of their annual bonus to the realization of project benefits.
  5. Promote excellence through competition: Set up a contest to identify and reward outstanding sponsors, fostering healthy competition and recognizing high performers in the organisation.

Recipe for effective project sponsorship in your organisation

Authority

The Sponsor must have a suitable level of authority to be able to make decisions on behalf of the project and to be able to act as an escalation point for the project manager.

Because they must also be able to represent the project to senior stakeholders they must also have a certain clout.

Credibility

In addition to formal authority, the Sponsor must also have a degree of credibility with their stakeholders. This comes from a combination of technical and interpersonal factors and skills.

Very importantly the Sponsor must be recognized as someone who acts with the best interest of the organization in mind, and have a history of acting in an ethical manner. A Sponsor that is thought of as having poor judgement or not being worthy of trust will undermine any project they are associated with.

Understanding of the subject matter

Associated with credibility is the Sponsor’s level of knowledge and understanding of the subject matter of the project. It is important that the Sponsor has sufficient knowledge to make sound decisions about the project.

This does not mean that the Sponsor has to be the greatest expert in the subject (in fact, the greatest expertise should sit at task level, where work happens), but some knowledge is necessary.

Note: it is perfectly possible (and sometimes necessary) to sponsor a project in a subject matter where you have no/limited understanding. What is important then is to demonstrate self-awareness, humility and efforts to listen to experts.

Understanding of the organisation and its environment

Whereas subject matter expertise is good but not crucial (see above), expertise in the organization, its operations, strategy and environment is absolutely crucial. A sponsor that does not understand the context in which the project exists will not be able to make sound decisions or reflect the organization’s risk appetite.

Understanding of project and programme management

A lack of understanding of basic project management principles can cause the sponsor to make bad decisions or ask impossible things of the project manager. This is likely to have a negative impact on the project (if it is not possible to deliver the project within the constraints the sponsor has given the project will fail) and it can also have a very negative impact on the physical and mental health of the project manager.

Understanding of Sponsor role

Many sponsors (and organisations) think a sponsor is a person that pops up every month or so to sign off expenses and maybe a business case or plan, and then they disappear until the next time their signature is needed.

This is disastrous for the project, because without pro-active leadership and steering it is very likely that the project does not have proper justification, and it might go in a direction that is not valuable to the organization. Often the project will also stall if there isn’t a vocal, active, leader to champion it and remove blockages.

Commitment and engagement

By understanding the sponsor role better it is clear that the sponsor must be very committed and engaged in the project.

This means both being present and making time for the needs of the project and also displaying a keen interest and passion for what the project is about.

If there is a project where the sponsor is not committed or engaged this should be seen as a red flag. The sponsor should be the ultimate champion of the project and if they are not this may be an indicator that the project is not of value and it should be stopped.

Relationships and networks

The Sponsor role is very much a people game and it relies on the sponsor being a person who has a certain influence and sway to make things happen. This requires an ability to build and maintain relationships with other senior executives and to have a network of people and organisations to engage with.

Capacity

Finally, but definitely not least important, the sponsor must have the capacity to carry out their role and to devote enough time and attention to the project. There is no ‘one size fits all’ amount of time or equation to help calculate how much time to devote to a project, it depends on its criticality and complexity and also the competence and comfort of the project manager and team. Some projects will require sponsor attention daily, others maybe only weekly.

If the sponsor finds themselves in a position where they do not have time to effectively sponsor a certain project that should be considered a significant risk to the project, since NAO’s research shows it is likely to impact the project’s chances of success.

APM Accredited Project Sponsor Training Course

The 1-day Wellingtone Project Sponsor training course is designed for project & programme sponsors. This highly interactive course brings best practice to life through exercises and discussions. It can be customised to align with your ways of working and project context.

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Monthly Newsletter

By: Hannah Francis

Hannah Francis

Published: 3 August 2023

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