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Effective Project Sponsors Needed: Relevant Experience and Education Definitely Required

PT_Sept_22_feature_d011932dad7214c2f1d55cc9ad15dc1fThat’s a sign I’d very much like to see!

The hard truth of it is that many of the people sponsoring our projects aren’t qualified to do so. Some aren’t experienced enough to be effective sponsors, and even if they are experienced, most haven’t been taught how to be an effective sponsor and what being an effective sponsor means. At their best, many sponsors can be well meaning but also less than helpful. At their worst, they can be downright dangerous to you and your project.    

So why does this happen? It happens because we have a bad habit of encouraging the “accidental” sponsor. Let me be cynical about this (it won’t be the last time) by telling you how project sponsorships are handed out in some organizations. When the senior executives meet and determine, or are dragged into the understanding, that they need to appoint a project sponsor for a major initiative, it’s too often a matter of assigning whoever’s next: “They say we need a sponsor, and I sponsored that last IT project thingy—it’s your turn.”          

Through some misguided respect for arbitrary authority (and putting someone who doesn’t know much about projects at the top of the project heap is about as arbitrary as it gets), and through unthinking deference to seniority, organizations and the project managers in them too often make the mistake of thinking that the person or people the executive team has appointed as the sponsors for our projects will be, must be, the “right” sponsors to help make the project a success.

Who Is the Right Who?

Dr. Francis Hartman says that the who question is probably the most important of the Three Key

Questions he asks at the beginning of any project.1

“For this project, when will we know that we’re done?” Hartman asks to establish a project end point and an associated set of deliverables that all stakeholders can agree represent the end.

  1. “At the point at which we’re done, how will we know that we’ve won?” Here, he’s aiming to get agreement among all project stakeholders on the metrics of success for the project, a clear and shared definition of success established well before the project starts.
  2. “Who gets to make the call on questions 1 and 2?” The right sponsor or sponsors usually declare on behalf of the organization that the project is “done” and that the team has “won” by successfully completing the project.

Yes, the most senior person in the organization—everyone says “the president” the first time they’re asked—can ultimately make the call on questions 1 and 2, but we’re looking for the person further down the organization, the person who is closest to the action, the person that the organization will empower to “make the call” on questions 1 and 2 on its behalf.

Don’t be fooled into accepting “figurehead” senior executive project sponsors if they aren’t close enough to the project that it won’t affect them personally or just because you think they’ll have the authority to make decisions. If you do, you’ll probably end up with sponsors who have little time for, or interest in, what you’re doing.

The great value of experience aside, we need to be able to explain to sponsors that project experience is different. No, sponsoring a project is not just like running a division, and it’s not just like effectively marketing a product—it’s all of this, and more, and different. And we need to be able to explain that project sponsorship is not an occasional thing, but an active thing, a verb more than a noun, an important commitment that will demand time, engagement, and most importantly, accountability.

And here’s the big kicker that sponsors need to be aware of: Whether a project succeeds or fails, a project sponsor should be accountable for that success or failure, as much or more than anyone on the project team, including the project manager. And the executive the sponsor works for needs to understand this, too. Accordingly, there are two questions you should ask that’ll go a long way toward telling you who the right project sponsor should be:

  • If this project succeeds, will the person or people I’m thinking about as sponsor benefit directly and visibly from the project’s success?
  • If this project fails, will this person be directly and visibly “hurt” within the organization?

 Experience tells me that if the answers to both 1 and 2 aren’t a resounding yes, you’ve got the wrong sponsor. 

How Many Sponsors Are Too Many?

One solid, engaged, accountable project sponsor is very good. Two solid, engaged, accountable project sponsors are OK but more difficult to manage. Having more than two sponsors isn’t effective at all. What you’ve got then is a steering committee (a badly executed idea most of the time) trying to act like a sponsor. People sometimes make the mistake of thinking that any exec whose area is affected by the outcome of the project, either directly or peripherally, should have a sponsorship role. No, they shouldn’t.

I worked on a financial systems upgrade project in Pennsylvania a few years back where the hosting organization had identified two project sponsors—the CFO and the CIO. So we did our stakeholder analysis carefully and thoroughly (see Chapter 11 for a complete discussion of managing stakeholders’ expectations) and came up with a plan and schedule that specifically addressed the expectations of both of these important stakeholders and their organizations.          

As expected, the CFO was all about compliance and reporting, and the CIO was all about aligning the new system with his IT road map, as well as the systems, standards, and integration that implied. Our plan covered both. But the CFO was all about making an aggressive schedule that he’d already committed to his boss and to the board (the fact that he’d committed to a date before a plan was put in place was another issue).        

The fact of the matter was that we couldn’t get the system in on time and still meet all the IT road map requirements and implications of the CIO’s expectations. Of course, we could have caved and said we’d do it all on the tight schedule, which would have been a disaster, but I’m pleased to say we stood our ground.        

But the problem remained: We had two sponsors with conflicting expectations. At our request (and this had to be handled delicately), the president stepped in. Recognizing that adherence to the IT road map was also an important consideration wherever possible, he made it clear that the date was the most important constraint and asked us to adjust the plan accordingly. He also acknowledged—with the CIO in the room, God bless him—that everything the CIO wanted couldn’t be accommodated within the required schedule. The CFO was then designated the single accountable project sponsor, with the CIO as an important member of the project advisory team. The CIO wasn’t thrilled with the outcome, of course, but he understood what was required, and more importantly, that it wasn’t the project team who’d told him he couldn’t have everything he wanted; it was the president, so he didn’t blame us. Sure, we were able to give the CIO much of what he wanted on the project, and he was a supportive stakeholder, but he wasn’t the accountable project sponsor, and because of that, we were able to resolve a potential multiple-sponsor conflict.

We assume that if executives have earned enough esteem in their organizations to be assigned such an important role that they must, therefore, also be well qualified to be effective sponsors, right? Wrong. Project sponsors aren’t like a good Cabernet; they don’t age into greatness, and their seniority often has little to do with their potential effectiveness as sponsors. And too often, their work experience doesn’t count for a lot in a project environment. Those who are experts on process—for example, corporate controllers who built their reputation on honing a repeatable process like the month-end close—may be ill-prepared to sponsor a project initiative, where the work is linear and non-repetitive.

Worse yet, with all their other (i.e. non-project) experience, senior people may fall back on what they know, what’s worked for them in the past, regardless of where that experience came from: “I don’t think we need to do that formal stakeholder analysis stuff. It’s a lot of work, and I don’t think we have the time. Let’s just get everybody together around a table and work it out—that’s always worked well in the past.”

Dumb Ideas: Project Kickoff Meetings and Most Sponsors’ Roles in Them

Not that a kickoff meetings is a dumb idea in and of itself, but they’re a dumb idea when they become purposeless cheerleading sessions: “This is the most important project we’ve got going in the company today!” says the sponsor (who almost invariably won’t have much time for the project team after the kickoff). Never mind that there are three other “most important” projects underway at the same time and competing for the same resources.        

If a project sponsor is prepared and equipped to come out with absolutely clear and usable directions for all those gathered—a very public declaration of the answers to the Three Key Questions, for example—in terms intended to reduce or eliminate uncertainty, that would make for a useful kickoff meeting. But kickoff meetings aren’t often working meetings; too often, they are casual and poorly planned meet-and-greet sessions that don’t accomplish much more than putting faces to names. Worse yet, a project sponsor might leave such a meeting with the impression that their work is largely done—“I’ve encouraged the team and set the tone and direction for the project”—when in fact, it’s just beginning.      

If your kickoff meeting is likely to be nothing more than a social occasion, or if the project sponsor will simply sprinkle a little holy water on the project and then disappear, don’t bother having one. Here’s a warning sign: Your sponsor says “I’m really too busy to attend the project planning meetings—go ahead without me.” Best advice? Don’t. Be brave enough to say, “Your role as project sponsor is critically important to the success of this project, and it doesn’t make sense to move ahead with the planning without your direct involvement and input. We’ll just have to wait to get started until you have the time.” And then you’ll want to remind the sponsor that, all things being equal, every day you delay the start of planning (that is, planning with the sponsor) is at least one day later the organization should expect the delivery of the project.

Making A More Effective Sponsor

Just knowing all of this doesn’t help much, does it? And you’re not likely to be well received by a sponsoring executive if you point out that they are probably unqualified for the job. But there are things you can do to help make your project sponsor more effective.

Train and Educate the Sponsor

I’d never propose playing the role of CFO for one of my clients, and certainly not without formal training in finance and accounting first and a lot of experience besides, so it’s interesting that some people think that a project sponsor might be able to do that job without any training at all. Sponsors, just like you and me and anyone else on a project, need to be educated about what it takes to effectively work with a project team. Just as PMs need to be taught to deal with executives, sponsors should be explicitly, deliberately taught to deal with projects, project issues, and project people. They need to learn about change management—the effective trade-off between cost, duration, and performance.

The key is to convince them of all of this without causing offense. Senior roles sometimes come with senior egos, and senior egos don’t like to be told that they need training. Some advice:

  • Unless your sponsors are unusually open minded, don’t suggest that they take training with the team. Senior people don’t usually like to do that, and certainly not in a situation in which what they don’t know might become readily apparent to all the other attendees.
  • Suggest that sponsors attend project management/project sponsorship sessions that are specifically run for senior people/sponsors. All of the project management conferences I’ve attended run special sessions, and even whole tracks, just for the most senior people. When sponsors are in a room with other people whom they see as potential colleagues at the same level, when they’re not concerned about showing what they don’t know, they tend to be a little more open and a little more receptive to advice on effective sponsorship.
  • Ask for their help (this is a really good idea in general, and I’ll come back to it a few times). Most people are flattered to be asked for help, sponsors/senior people included. If you tell them how badly you need their support and understanding and how important it is to you and the project that they get up to speed on the PM stuff they’re going to have to deal with, how critically important the role of sponsor is to the success of the project, and how much you’re looking forward to working with them, you may be able to convince them to spend a little time on up-front sponsor education. And while you’re at it, don’t call it education; tell ‘em that it’s an opportunity to “spend time with other senior people like you.”

You’d be surprised how amenable people can be to your suggestions when you validate their role and seniority and ask for their help.

Select a Sponsor Deliberately

A project sponsor should never, never, never be a figurehead position. As early as possible, make clear the importance and significant contribution required from a project sponsor. Make sure that you include a clear and exhaustive description of the role and responsibilities of the project sponsor in every document you produce, as early as possible. The sponsor’s duties and how much they’re expected to participate must be clear up front. We need to be deliberate and selective about where we need sponsor support—for example, we should specify what we want our sponsor to know about the organizational culture.               

If a potential sponsor isn’t willing or available to put in the time and energy required per the project charter, do we really want them as a sponsor? I can hear you now: “But I don’t get to pick the sponsor, and no one asks what I think about it.” You have two choices: Diplomatically but forcefully point out what is needed in an effective sponsor now, before you start the project, or deal with the implications of having an ineffective or unhelpful sponsor later. I know which one I’d choose.

Insist on Sponsor Accountability… Carefully

How brave are you? Brave enough to ask your sponsor, “Is this project on your performance review?” You should be. Yes, it’s a tough question to ask, but there are tougher implications later, if you don’t. Just how engaged do you think a sponsor will be if your (very important) project doesn’t have an impact on their performance rating?

While you’re working with your team members on their accountability agreements (another very good idea), talk to your sponsor about their accountability agreement, too.

Insist on Sponsor Clarity, Clearly

A project sponsor I worked with last year, who was acutely aware of the political implications of what he was doing, and even more aware of the negative implications of uncertainty and confusion, started us off on the right track by saying:

“OK, now that I’ve heard everyone’s input, I’m going to make a decision, ‘cause that’s my job as project sponsor. The decision is option A. The decision is not option B. Does everyone here understand that I’ve decided on A and not B? Please nod your head to show that you understand.

Let me say this again. Not B, but A. If you were in favor of B, sorry, that’s not how it’s going to be. Let me be clear about this: No work should be done on B, I don’t want to hear about B anymore, the discussion is now closed. All of us are now working on A. Got it? A, not B. Not B, but A.”

My kind of project sponsor!

 “Excerpted with permission from Guerrilla Project Management by Kenneth T. Hanley. © 2011 by Management Concepts, Inc. All rights reserved.”

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Kenneth T. Hanley, M.Eng. (Project Management), is the principal of KTH Program and Project Management, Inc., which specializes in managing large and complex programs and projects; helping its clients organize strategic project portfolios; coaching project managers and executives in effective management practices; and establishing and managing effective program management offices for an international client base. 

Ken also teaches effective leadership, organization, and project management in graduate management and engineering programs at universities throughout North America and is in demand as a speaker at project management conferences around the world.

Ken is the author of Guerrilla Project Management

1 Francis T. Hartman, Don’t Park Your Brain Outside: A Practical Guide to Improving Shareholder Value With Smart Management (Newtown Square, PA: The Project Management Institute, 2000).

Mike Morton

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