The project sponsor role has grown in importance over the last years and I aim to provide some context attesting to that fact. But until then let’s focus a bit on the project manager. It is widely agreed that project managers fill a complex role within an organization. By definition their job requires them to assemble a team and deliver new initiatives. Their work is contained inside projects, you probably know the definition but I will nonetheless say it one more time, temporary and unique endeavors done by a company to achieve a certain objective; not to be confused with the the routine of daily operations.

We can easily view them as adventures into the unknown, because projects are really the way we innovate, how we execute on strategies pertaining to the company’s vision or how we deliver new infrastructure and capabilities. With that in mind it’s just a step to think that senior leaders would do everything they can to support project managers.

Having an engaged project sponsor may be one of the most important factors contributing to project success. This position has been heavily linked with project success in more than one industry studies, yet research suggests that we have a long way to go before we can say that actual practices around sponsorship are really institutionalized in our organizations.

To properly understand our premise let’s take a look at the primary responsibilities of a project sponsor:

  • Assume responsibility for the projects outcome.
  • Lead the project and grant authority on the PM and project team.
  • Provide resources and visibility to the project team.
  • Ensure the existence of transparency, accountability and team values.
  • Coach the project manager.
  • Support the project team trough challenges.
  • Defend the project team against organizational interference.

What if: there was no Project Sponsor

Well… the obvious, all the above responsibilities fall under the purview of the project manager, often resulting in over-burdening him, who typically lacks the power to successfully accomplish these tasks. The lack of a suitable executive leading the project most surely will lead to a wide array of project problems, including and not limited to: project failure, delays, higher costs, reduced quality or team disruption.

If you are looking to successfully deliver your initiatives, having a Project Sponsor can be the difference maker. Given the importance of this particular role, we can assume that organizations take it very seriously. Unfortunately real life tends to disagree.

In the high-performing organizations, 81 percent of projects had active sponsors.

Statista

How are organizations treating the Project Sponsor role

In this era with all the development around project management practices you would expect that most of the companies would have mature practices employed around the project sponsor role. To my surprise in reality the situation is exactly the opposite. The following information is gathered from various resources out there, covering various types of organizations, Fortune 100 firms, small businesses, start-ups or not-for-profits.

  1. We believe improvement in the skills of the executive sponsor is the single most important factor that will increase project success. Sixty-six percent of executive sponsors do a poor job and shirk their responsibilities. However, it is not their fault, because no one has educated them about their roles and responsibilities.
    The Standish Group in their 2012 CHAOS Report.
  2. 89% of high-performing organizations value project management, 81% actively engage sponsors, 57% align projects with business strategy. Project Management Institute: Pulse of the Profession 2015: Capturing the Value of Project Management 2015
  3. Despite being the top driver of project success, fewer than 2 in 3 projects had actively engaged project sponsors. Project Management Institute: Pulse of the Profession 2014 – The High Cost of Low Performance
  4. 68% of projects don’t have an effective project sponsor to provide clear direction or help address problems. KPMG New Zealand: Project Management Survey 2010
  5. From the projects completed in the last year 62% were supported by active project sponsors. Project Management Institute: Pulse of the Profession 2015: Capturing the Value of Project Management 2015
  6. 44% of strategic initiatives were reported as unsuccessful. Project Management Institute: Pulse of the Profession 2014 – The High Cost of Low Performance
    1. Top causes:
    2. Lack of executive support
    3. Lack of focus on key initiatives & projects that are strategically relevant
    4. Lack of skills and/or personnel for effective strategy implementation

All these sources tend to have the roughly the same conclusion. We consider the project sponsor as being an important factor in project success but we fail to implement it in our organizations. However, while I do agree that the current practice of executive sponsorship has room for improvement, project managers will keep on moving forward.

What is a project manager to do?

There are steps a project manager can take to work towards finding the right project sponsor. Let’s take a look.

Recruit a project sponsor. This is the first step and this is where the project manager assess the need for a sponsor. If the project has strategic implications, either directly for customers or indirectly by enabling more efficient delivery of services, than you need a sponsor. Work directly with your manager or your PMO head to reinforce the project’s importance or to ask for help. Present the required role responsibilities, and use industry research to identify the correct individual.

Train your sponsor. Present the role as strategic, not as a figurehead. Most executives take the role without any training or knowledge of their supposed responsibilities. While you as a project manager will be in a rather uncomfortable situation of training a superior, they will nonetheless appreciate your guidance. You should focus on accountability, team values and organizational interference protection.

Actively engage your sponsor. Communication is essential for a highly functional relationship between the PM and Sponsor. A clear reporting protocol is necessary for project activities or emergencies. The sponsor should be actively engaged in status and team meetings, as well as act as a broadcaster for team successes.

Ask for support from your sponsor. Allow your sponsor to provide input regarding your project. It is always helpful to have someone with more experience than you observing and offering feedback.

Leverage the sponsor for big issues. Gentle touch. Try to balance the way you leverage your sponsor. His responsibilities are limited and overstepping is not recommended. He is there to secure resources, promote your project to upper management and reinforce team values.

Conclusion

The project sponsor may be one of the important puzzle pieces that contribute to project success. Project managers that understand the need for a project sponsor can easily improve their chances of delivering a successful project. Take it upon yourself to identify, recruit and train your executive sponsor.

Image courtesy of Freepik.

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I am a Project Management practitioner with more than 5 years experience in hardware and software implementation projects. Also a bit of a geek and a great WordPress enthusiast. I hope you enjoy the content, and I encourage you to share your knowledge with the world.

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