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From the Sponsor’s Desk – Fixing Uncommitted Sponsors

We know that actively engaged sponsors are a critical success factor in effective project delivery. But most senior executives who must assume the sponsor mantle are anything but actively engaged.

At least initially. I call them the uncommitted sponsors!

Senior managers whom we rely on to fill those sponsor roles are busy folks with packed calendars. If they can get something off their plate, they will. Unfortunately, sponsorship can’t be delegated. A manager is a sponsor because of their role in the organization and their overall accountability for a planned change. So, how do we help an uncommitted sponsor become a fully engaged one? With the right kind of questions.

Related Article: Connecting With Your Project Sponsor

In this post, we’ll look at a manager’s journey from habitually uncommitted sponsor to an engaged leader of a transformational change.

Thanks to P.S. for the details on this case.

The Situation

This public sector director was used to initiating changes within her own organization, and achieving outstanding results. Her usual style was to appoint a project manager, have a kickoff meeting with her managers, discuss the reason for the change, the goals she expected to achieve and some boundaries in terms of time, costs and other constraints. She then acted like Captain Jean-Luc Picard of Star Trek fame and decreed “Make It So.”

She usually had no further involvement in the change process, expecting the PM and her managers to make whatever decisions were necessary to deliver the expected results. And for the most part, the approach worked. The changes were generally evolutionary, not transformational. They were usually short-term, low-cost, and low-risk undertakings. The impact was contained within her own organization. The PM and the managers were usually able to make the necessary decisions collaboratively, without the director’s input.

But she was now involved in a change that affected a number of organizations outside her own. She had proposed a transition to Software as a Service (SaaS) offerings to replace a hodgepodge of antiquated, costly and poorly supported mainframe, client-server and homegrown desktop applications that supported her organization.

It was a compelling business case, and her boss had approved the project with enthusiasm. However, he had expanded the scope considerably by asking the director to also include his entire organization, including three other directors and over three hundred additional staff. She realized her uncommitted sponsor role wouldn’t work here.

The Goal

The director’s original proposal, based on her organization’s needs, had been $1.5 million for an application software transition to SaaS services over four years. The payback was an estimated $600,000 annually in cost savings plus projected but unquantified productivity savings in the future. Her boss challenged her to manage the change across his entire organization in the same four years at double the cost, and triple the benefits, arguing that they should be able to leverage and replicate the SaaS solutions in the other groups at minimal incremental cost. His final words: “Make It So.”

The Project

The director realized that the game had changed. But she wasn’t exactly sure how to proceed. Was she still the sponsor? Was her boss the sponsor? Was she supposed to be the project manager? Did she need to recruit a PM? Did she have decision-making authority over the other three directors? What role would her boss play in the project?

The director’s staff had studied the problems and opportunities in her organization over a four month period and had zeroed in on the SaaS solution as the best, most cost-effective long-term solution. They understood the costs, the benefits, the risks and the rewards and were comfortable with the four-year time frame. She had no such insight into the other three organizations.

She arranged a meeting with the other three directors and her boss so he could review his goals and expectations for the project. To her surprise, her boss asked her to describe the planned project. Her boss sat back and watched as her peers pumped her with questions about the impact of the proposed direction on their organizations. Of course, the director could only answer generically. She didn’t know the specifics. The meeting did not go well.

At the end of the meeting, her boss asked her to stay behind. When the other directors had departed, her boss chastised her for running a shoddy meeting, for not being prepared and for not showing the leadership he expected from her. The director bit her tongue and took the abuse.

After the meeting, the director took stock. She concluded she was not the sponsor of the expanded project. That role should be taken by her boss. But he was an uncommitted sponsor. She and the other three directors were targets – managers of organizations affected by the planned change. A plan of action started to take shape in her mind.

The director’s first step was to recruit a seasoned PM who could handle the expanded scope and deal effectively with her boss and the other directors. When he was on board and oriented to the challenge, she and the new PM met with each of the other directors, one on one, to explore the incremental opportunities.

The PM continued the dialogue with the other directors and their staff to establish the overall scope.

There were still lots of questions and issues to be addressed including the priority of the initiative and timing across the four organizations involved. Two of the other directors were also pork-barreling – trying to add additional work to the project to get funding for their pet projects, even though the projects were unrelated to the scope and intent of the original proposal. And then the director saw the opportunity. She would use those outstanding questions and issues to get her boss involved and engaged as the committed sponsor the project needed.

The director worked with the PM to put together a revised project proposal that the other directors agreed with. It was, of course, way beyond the original scope, but that was the point. That would get the boss involved. At the same time, the director met with her boss to start getting him used to the idea of being the sponsor. She told him she and the PM had met with the other directors to put together a revised plan. But, there were decisions beyond her mandate that needed his involvement. Would he be willing to convene a meeting with the four directors to review their plans and make the necessary calls so they could get on with the project? And, of course, he agreed. The meeting happened. The directors presented their plans for their own organizations. And the boss ruled. He established his expectations on priority, timing, scope, costs and benefits. He announced the PM would be reporting to him. He called for bi-weekly review meetings initially, with himself as chair and including the four directors and the PM. And so, the guiding coalition was formed, and an uncommitted sponsor became fully engaged.

The Results

The targets put in place by the director’s boss were to move his entire organization to SaaS platforms over four years, at the cost of $3 million and delivering annual cost savings of $1.8 million. As the PM explored the opportunities across the four organizations and the boss ruled on what he’d pay for, the scope shrank somewhat, costs coming in at $2.3 million and projected benefits at a little over $1 million, still a very good return.

What was as remarkable was the transformation of the affected stakeholders. They went from individual managers battling each other for a bigger piece of the pie to a fully collaborative group focusing on the best value for the entire organization. That transformation was initiated by the director, with the help of the PM. It was brought to fruition by the boss, now an engaged leader, no longer an uncommitted sponsor.

How a Great Leader Delivered

I did a similar post a while ago, For Best Results Use Your Sponsor Wisely, that covered a similar situation with an uncommitted sponsor. Unfortunately, that project ended badly for all concerned. What made the difference in this situation?

In this case, the director recognized that things had changed once her boss expanded the scope of her proposal. She was a change champion certainly, and definitely a target, but no longer the sponsor. She persisted in her efforts to move her boss into the sponsor role in spite of his early reluctance. She presented him with questions that clearly required him to make the calls. She brought in a talented PM to help her manage the transition. She went back to square one with her director colleagues to rebuild their trust and ongoing cooperation.

So, regardless of the change you’re involved with, take a moment and make sure you know what role you’re playing. Also, make sure you know who is filling the other vital roles. And, if you find issues or opportunities, put these points on your checklist of things to do so you too can be a Great Leader. And remember, use Project Pre-Check’s three building blocks covering the key stakeholder group (including the key stakeholder roles), the decision management process and Decision Framework best practices right up front, so you don’t overlook these key success factors. Also, for more on the sponsor role, download the Are You Ready to be a Sponsor pamphlet.

Finally, thanks to everyone who has willingly shared your experiences for presentation in this blog. Everyone benefits. First-time contributors get a copy of one of my books. Readers get insights they can apply to their own unique circumstances. So, if you have a project experience, good, bad and everything in between, send me the details, and we’ll chat. I’ll write it up and, when you’re happy with the results, Project Times will post it so others can learn from your insights. Thanks

Drew Davison

Drew Davison is the owner and principal consultant at Davison Consulting and a former system development executive. He is the developer of Project Pre-Check, an innovative framework for launching projects and guiding successful project delivery, the author of Project Pre-Check - The Stakeholder Practice for Successful Business and Technology Change and Project Pre-Check FastPath - The Project Manager’s Guide to Stakeholder Management. He works with organizations that are undergoing major business and technology change to implement the empowered stakeholder groups critical to project success. Drew can be reached at [email protected].

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