Trying to deliver a project without an engaged sponsor is like starting a voyage on a ship without a captain, crew, lifeboat or even a planned route.
However, that is a situation many Project Managers find themselves in (present company included!) We all know that strong executive sponsorship can make or break any project but do we truly understand the effects of bad sponsorship? According to PMI’s Pulse of the Profession Report for 2016 (An Annual Report on the State of Project Management), actively engaged executive sponsors were “by far the top driver of projects meeting their original goals and business intent.” The same project management research also found that one in three failed projects link to poorly-engaged executive sponsorship.
If you are struggling to make sense of the fact that executive sponsorship can be a top driver of goal achievement, and yet also directly linked to one-third of all project management failures, then you are not alone. In project management 101 we are all taught that your project sponsor is there to remove any obstacles that prevent the team from achieving the project’s objectives. However, how do you know when you, as the project sponsor are the problem? Importantly, how do you fix it? Now, this can be a real dilemma for any project management team, but I think I have managed to recognize the behaviors of a bad sponsor.
Behavior 1: Listen, I have got a pile of work to get through today, so I will not make today’s Steering Committee Meeting
Keeping a project running can be tough on a normal day (project management is not for sissies). So, imagine when you throw in things like a changing external environment, lack of resources, scope creep, etc.? Nothing is more frustrating for a project manager than sitting through a Steering Committee meeting and struggling to get the support and co-operation of the project sponsors. As the name suggests, the purpose of the steering committee meeting is for the project sponsor to steer the project to success from the start to the completion, give strategic direction and support the project manager.
I would like to believe that the project sponsor and project manager are in a partnership for the duration of the project. For this to be a successful partnership, the sponsor needs to be connected to the project manager and the project team. To do this, you must be present! Meeting with the project manager before the meeting and specifically discussing what they need from you during the session is crucial. Reviewing the Steering Committee pack and listing the talking points helps to keep the focus on those critical items. If you are a remote sponsor, too busy to meet to discuss progress or review status reports, then these are all warning signs that it is probably time for you to make a change or walk away.
Behavior 2: I need you to analyze, collect data, analyze more, and search for more data of all ten scenarios before I can make a decision
No decision is worse than a bad decision! If you are a project sponsor delaying a decision, you are inevitably delaying the work needed to deliver the project. Guess what? Spending more time gathering information or convincing yourself that the data is inconclusive is unlikely to help. Listen to your intuition and make the call, nobody is going to do it for you. Even with a bad decision, the project team can plan the execution, understand the risks and develop mitigations if the cracks start to appear.
Project managers are always willing to share their views so use this to your advantage. Ask for proposals and get them to explain the limitations of each option. In my experience, detailed explanations and logical counterarguments might not get you to the right decision, but it will lead you to an informed decision. If you find yourself avoiding even the simple decision (like approving project management documents), then you have a problem. It is a matter of time until it reaches critical status and you are heading for real trouble (and so is your project).
Behavior 3: I have no idea what success looks like, but I will be sure to hold you responsible when I do not get it
Are you a project sponsor that is often surprised when the deliverables are not what you expected? Wanted a rollercoaster and got a swing instead? Chances are during the project management process you have not spent enough time defining what success looks like at the end of the project.
Resist the urge to go with the generic success factors like defect-free products, improved partnerships, and happy customers. Instead, spend the time during the project definition phase to understand project success and how it will be measured objectively. If you have not had a chance to complete this sentence, “I will consider this project a success if…” then it is likely that you and the project team have no idea on what success looks like and I doubt you will ever get there.
It is just not enough to be assigned in name as the project sponsor on a project. You must be the right person for the job, with enough capacity to do it right. At Project Portfolio Office (PPO) our project management methodology defines what a sponsor’s responsibilities are, what they are involved with and what authority they have. By having this, it will serve as a reminder to you of what your project team’s expectations are of you and increase the value of project management in your business
There’s a lot more signs that show when you are a bad sponsor, but I thought these would be a great place to start. Spend some time thinking back to the last few projects, and you might uncover why the project team was hampered from delivering successful projects!
Alternatively, I have got it all wrong and guilty of deferring the problem! Share your project management experience below!