A common theme in an APM LinkedIn group seems to be the availability (or lack of it) of a project sponsor and how detrimental their absence is to a project. Even when they are present, there seem to be few commentators impressed with their level of project knowledge or ability.

What is a Project Sponsor supposed to do?

Organisations exist in a dynamic and competitive environment. They must continually anticipate changes in their environment and reinvent themselves to suit, otherwise, they will die. Projects are the vehicle of change. The need for change may be sensed and nurtured in any part of an organisation but at some point, a project will be conceived and from thenceforth it requires a sponsor.

The Project Sponsor will develop the project vision, evaluate different options to bring about the desired change, weigh anticipated benefits against estimated costs and then seek investment authority from the organization’s board. If successful the Sponsor will then “own” the business case and be the guardian of the organisation’s investment.

The Project Sponsor will hire a Project Manager to translate the Vision into reality within cost, time and performance constraints.

Once the Project Sponsor feels that the Project Manager understands the vision and constraints, the Project Sponsor should begin planning for the day when the project is handed back to the organisation. Whether the project is IT or Infrastructure, the organisation has to change itself to realize the benefits anticipated from, and justifying the project.

For example, a benefit of a new automated factory might be reduced headcount. A Project Manager tasked with building the factory is unlikely to be responsible for also arranging redundancies or job transfers. But they do need to be planned for.

The Project Sponsor is the guardian of the investment and therefore if costs rise or delays creep in it is his or her duty to re-assess the business case and check that the project is still justified. This is an on-going task but formalised as Project Governance with Gateway Reviews at critical points before the next significant tranche of investment. If necessary it is the Project Sponsor who must call for cancellation of the project.

In summary, the Project Sponsor is responsible for:

• Vision
• Governance
• Benefits Realisation

Why are Project Sponsors so elusive?

I suspect that this is due to a misunderstanding of project sponsorship by both organisations and by project managers. Organisations are sometimes reluctant to delegate project sponsorship and will either retain it at board level or consider it the Project Manager’s responsibility.

Either course is potentially fatal to the project and the organisation. If the board retain it, then there is no single person responsible. One of the downsides of collective ownership is Groupthink in which groups take greater risks than individuals. A problem shared is a problem halved, except that in this case, it isn’t. It’s blame that’s shared. If the organisation thinks that the Project Manager should be responsible for project sponsorship then, amongst other errors, they are asking him or her to be self-policing.

I also detect a contradictory desire in some project managers for a sponsor to both not interfere and also be a kind of senior project manager. It seems to be part of human nature that we always need a higher authority that we can refer to in times of need. Let’s be clear, project sponsors are not senior project managers. They have a very different role and responsibilities.

What does the Project Sponsor – Project Manager relationship look like?

An hourglass. The Project Sponsor and Project Manager stand back to back at the neck (or waist) of the hourglass with the Project Manager facing the consultants and contractors engaged to deliver the project and the Project Sponsor facing the organisation’s departments and stakeholders with an investment in the project and/or affected by it. They depend on each other for the success of the project. They must have trust in each other and meet regularly, but the Project Sponsor is likely to have a day job too.

Is the poor view of Project Sponsors justified?

As a Project Manager, my experience of Project Sponsors has always been very good and I like to think that the same has been true on the projects where I have been Sponsor.

However, despite my grey hair, my experience is limited and there is every reason to believe that project sponsorship is lacking. Despite the importance of project sponsorship, it is not a profession. There is no Association for Project Sponsorship or Project Sponsorship Institute to encourage education and qualification of project sponsors. The APM and PMI do reach out to influence project sponsorship but at arm’s length via project managers.

We expect rather a lot of project sponsors, even discounting the erroneous expectations. We expect them to understand the organization’s business and corporate strategy very well. We expect them to have good relationships with the board, all departments affected and external stakeholders. We expect them to have a thorough grasp of the business case and an understanding of project management.

That’s a rare animal indeed

When I put forward my author’s proposal to Gower Publishing I searched Amazon and found that there were over 35,000 books on project management and only one on project sponsorship. As an economy, we need organisations that survive and grow through projects that add real value and as an industry we need to raise the awareness of project sponsorship and help project sponsors understand and fulfil their role.

About Guest Contributor

David West graduated with a masters degree in Engineering Science from the University of Oxford, and later added an MBA. He is a chartered civil engineer, member of the Association for Project Management and also the Institute of Risk Management. He has worked on projects in the power, nuclear, petrochemical, building, leisure, health, defence, rail, and development sectors. He has worked right across the project spectrum including roles as: designer, design manager, site manager, construction manager, project manager, project sponsor, risk manager, business unit manager, developer and project sponsor. He has also taught on the Open University MBA programme. He is the author of Project Sponsorship: An Essential Guide for Those Sponsoring Projects Within Their Organizations, ISBN 978-0566088889 published by Gower. David is a Senior Technical Director with WSP, a global design engineering and management consultancy specializing in Property, Transport & Infrastructure, Industry and Environment projects. Information about his Project Sponsorship paperback book can be found at www.gowerpublishing.com/isbn/9780566088889 and Project Sponsorship ebook at www.gowerpublishing.com/isbn/9781409410799.