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An Overly Engaged Sponsor Can be as Lethal as a Disengaged One!

Bondale FeatureArticle Feb6PMI’s 2012 Pulse of the Profession survey listed “engaged project sponsors” as one of the project management practices identified in organizations which had 80% or more of their projects meeting expectations. Most project managers would echo this finding as they are likely bearing scars incurred on past projects where they suffered from the impacts of disengaged sponsors. 

Under such conditions, for those project managers who have never had hyper-engaged sponsors, this might seem to be an ideal situation! So what’s the harm that an overly engaged sponsor can do?

Personal impacts include the marginalization of your role on your project and a longer term reduction in the perceived benefits of having professional project managers assigned to lead projects. In extreme cases, I have witnessed project managers requesting re-assignment or even leaving their company if they feel that such behavior is tolerated or encouraged.

Beyond the personal impacts, as over engaged sponsors usually possess significant political clout, if this influence is being used to divert resources from higher valued projects or they are actively conspiring to undermine other projects, this could cause the organization to not achieve its strategic objectives.

Finally, significant operational or people management impacts might be occurring if the excessive focus on the project is diverting your sponsor from their functional responsibilities.

While the overly engaged sponsor is rarer to find in the project “wild” than their more commonly observed disengaged cousins, this sub-species is more troubling because the tell-tale signs of over engagement are more subtle than those of disengagement. In fact, as many project managers might feel grateful about the excessive attention their projects are receiving, here are some tests (with inspiration drawn from Jeff Foxworthy’s stand-up redneck comedy routine) to help identify the presence of an overly engaged sponsor.

  • If your sponsor appears to be exhibiting Theory X behaviors by checking on your project’s status or open actions on a daily or even more frequent basis, he might be overly engaged.
  • If your sponsor is circumventing you by frequently providing direction or work allocation to team members, she might be too engaged.
  • If your sponsor insists on attending each and every project meeting, regardless of the meeting’s objective or audience, he may be overly engaged.
  • If your sponsor is using Machiavellian tactics to ensure sustained funding and resource availability for the project, even when the project has been clearly identified as NOT being the top organization priority, he might be just a bit too engaged.
  • If you find your sponsor is first in line to back fill for you when you are off, even when one of your work package leads or PM peers is available to do so, she may be just a little too engaged.
  • If your sponsor re-writes your regular project status reports to senior management and other stakeholders, he is definitely too engaged!

If one or more of these tests are positive, it’s still a good idea to get some independent validation before you try to address the situation. This is one of those cases where having a peer support group of other project managers within your organization can be invaluable. Review the evidence you’ve gathered with one of your trusted colleagues and see if they agree with your hypothesis.

Once the diagnosis has been confirmed, curing the disease can begin by “walking a mile in their shoes” to understand why your sponsor might be behaving this way.

If it’s the first time he has been a sponsor, he may simply be unclear on the expectations for his role as well as the full accountabilities for yours. This is why it’s crucial to review rules of engagement with sponsors and team members at the outset of a project, but even if you did so at that time, it is a good idea to review and reinforce these expectations periodically.

If your sponsor’s actions are the result of her feeling tremendous personal accountability for the success of the project (which should be encouraged) but she is worried that you’ll let her down, you should help her understand how her behaviors are undermining your role and work with her to define a progressive plan which will help her to develop trust in your ability to manage the project.

If your sponsor’s actions are not due to either of these acceptable reasons, he may simply be playing the political game to ensure he or his project succeeds at the expense of others. In such cases, if repeated objective, focused discussions with your sponsor result in no change in behavior, escalation through your own manager may be the only option.

An attentive sponsor might seem like water in the desert to most project managers, but be careful that you don’t drown in the pool of over engagement!

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