Gain Perspective: Identify Project Stakeholders (Project Sponsor)

Stakeholder roles: Project Sponsor

Many projects are organizational anomalies. They cross department and corporate boundaries; they staff up for short periods, then disband; they may span a portion of a budget cycle while drawing funding from multiple groups within a company. The temporary, ad-hoc nature of projects can create major problems for project managers because their authority is typically insufficient to cope with these organizational challenges. The project sponsor is the solution to these problems.

The project sponsor is the person with formal authority who is ultimately responsible for the project. A project sponsor may be a senior executive or a junior manager. The project sponsor’s position and authority in the organization are independent of any project and this enables the sponsor to act as a connection between a project and the normal decision-making process. The project sponsor might use his or her power on behalf of the project manager, provide advice, or influence project priority. The project sponsor provides the authority that the project manager often lacks.

There are two basic concepts in understanding the importance of project sponsors to the project.

First, sponsors are ultimately responsible for the success of the project. The real, formal authority that comes from their title and position in the organization endows them with this responsibility.

Second, the project sponsor’s primary task is to help the project team be successful. The best project sponsors know they aren’t sponsoring a project, they are sponsoring the project manager and the project team. The sponsor’s job is to help these people be successful. That’s why another term for sponsor is champion, as in “I am championing this project team and I will not let anything stand in their way!”

Duties of a Project Sponsor

A sponsor’s primary contribution to a project is his or her authority. There are many tangible ways sponsors lend their authority to projects. A sponsor may:

  • Prominently support the project manager by issuing a project charter. The charter is an announcement that names a new project, the purpose of the project, and the project manager.
  • Assist in developing a responsibility matrix. The responsibility matrix shows how different stakeholder groups will be involved in the project.
  • Review and approve the statement of work (SOW). The SOW describes the goals, constraints, and project management guidelines of a project
  • Review and approve the project plan. The sponsor must endorse the cost-schedule-quality equilibrium represented in the plan.
  • Advise the project manager, and discuss the status of the project with this manager on a regular basis. Project Sponsors must involve themselves in a project before problems arise so that they’re able to join in the problem solving. Uninformed project sponsors—sponsors in name only—are of little help to a project manager when obstacles arise.
  • Monitor and maintain the priority of the project relative to other projects. Because an organization has limited resources, there are always more valid projects proposed than time, money, and people can deliver. To execute projects efficiently, an organization must be clear about the priorities of its various projects, including the amount of funding and other resources assigned to each. In spite of stated intentions to prioritize, however, the reality is that people are often pulled from one project to fight fires on another. This robbery may continue until the original project falls so far behind that people are thrown back at that one. The project sponsor’s job is to keep this unproductive staffing practice from affecting the project. He or she must keep the size of the project team and the size of the budget as constant as possible.
  • Assist the project manager in overcoming organizational obstacles. When the project manager lacks the authority to overcome bureaucracy, the sponsor will have to step in on behalf of the project. Proof of the value of this type of intervention comes from a study by an information systems department in a Fortune 500 firm. This study determined that having a known and active sponsor was the number one reason for a project’s success, because problems were given timely attention by a manager who had authority to effect a solution.

In most corporate environments, enlisting a powerful, interested project sponsor is critical to the success of a project. This manager will promote and protect the project and provide the formal authority in the organization that a project manager often lacks.

We have discussed the qualities to look for in a project sponsor. Now, we will turn to the last in our list of the five project stakeholders.

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