Dispelling Myths around Project Sponsorship
by Radhia Benalia, PhD, PMP, PMI-RMP, Green Project Manager
In times where organizations are starting to question a lot of what they do and strive to find ways to improve their chances for sustainability and growth, there is increasing scrutiny on people holding leading positions. Forward-thinking organizations are willing to invest in their people, involving even those filling some of the highest roles, but it is still not very common to see companies training their executive managers or senior managers on the role of a project sponsor.
Who exactly is the sponsor?
The sponsor is the person or group performing the functions of providing the Project or Program Manager’s authority, making investment decisions and providing direction- PMI Research Conference, 2012.
The senior manager directing a project is not always called a sponsor. In fact, according to OGC, they are the Senior Responsible Owner (SRO): “The single individual with overall responsibility for ensuring that a project or program meets its objectives and delivers the project benefits.” OGC, 2007.
Even if project-bound, the role of a project sponsor is a leading role and the behavior of project sponsors can have a direct impact on the success of the project. In fact, Project Management Institute (PMI) research has shown that having actively engaged executive sponsors is the top driver of project success. – PMI Pulse of Profession (2014). Academic research seems to confirm. According to Liu et al. (2013), top management support is one of the most critical factors for successful completion of projects.
Unfortunately, a large number of organizations are yet to prepare their managers and executives for the role of a project sponsor. The same organizations who invest intensively in training their project managers rarely invest in project sponsors or project-sponsors-to-be for several reasons:
1- People often assume that executives know it all and do not see a need for training.
2- Senior managers and executives are not always willing to go back to “school” and often display a negative attitude towards being taught what to do when sponsoring a project.
3- The project manager is seen as the ultimate point of accountability and assigning a project sponsor is sometimes seen as a mere formality.
All in all, and in stark contrast with the awareness that people have gained towards the role of project manager, the role of a sponsor is a topic that many are still grappling with.
Dispelling the Myths
In order to better understand the role of a sponsor, let us first dispel some myths:
Myth 1: Sponsorship equals Executive Management.
In fact, not every executive can be a sponsor. The profile of a good project sponsor needs to include the following:
1- He/she needs to have a profound understanding of the strategy of the business and be able to clearly convey it to the project manager and to the project team, whether the project is a “stand-alone” project or a PMO implementation.
2- The sponsor needs to act as the proxy of the business: He/she ensures that the project is aligned with the business strategy, and that it will indeed bring value to the organization. Then, he/she needs to rally the troops around the vision of the project.
3- This person can bring the funds and/or resources to the project, and can assume a political role where he/she would be protecting the project manager and the project team from negative organizational influences.
4- The sponsor needs to be ready to make difficult decisions, such as to cancel the project if it is found that the project’s outcomes will no longer bring added value to the business.
5- He/she needs to be an excellent communicator with a knack for simplifying and clarifying complex concepts. At initiation of the project, for instance, it is paramount that the project sponsor relays clearly to the PM and project team the exact scope and objectives of the project and ensures that they all have had their questions answered and that the work they do later remains within scope.
Myth 2: Sponsors need not to be trained on project management know-how. “After all, they make decisions at the organizational level”.
It is essential for the project sponsor to understand how a project works. He/she is not required to know as much as the project manager would on tactical project management concepts, but they both need to be able to speak the same language. It can be very frustrating for the PM to report to an executive that does not understand the significance of the indices or the risk register, for instance.
On the other hand, it can sometimes become a little risky when the project sponsor has profound knowledge of project management practices. This is because some would tend to micro-manage the PM or hijack his/her role. A project sponsor needs to let the project manager be in charge while providing the required support.
Myth 3: The higher the sponsor in the organization, the better. Always!
Not really. It can be very helpful to have a powerful project sponsor, especially to navigate politics. However, an executive sponsor is not always as accessible as a project sponsor from middle-management, for example. One of the key factors to project success is frequent communication between PM and PS, and it requires consistent involvement of the PS.
Good communication implies clear expectations for both sides from the beginning. The PS and PM should work on making frequency, type, and how to of communications crystal clear. As ambiguity is often embedded in all types of projects, it helps a lot not to add to it by making exchanges and expectations ambiguous as well.
In addition, a good working relationship between the PS and PM helps alleviate a lot of the hurdles. Mutual trust and honest communication where the PM is not worried about sharing “bad” news with the PS is the type of context that helps contribute to project success. On the other hand, withholding timely information has proven to be detrimental to the completion of a variety of projects and programs.
Myth 4: If any coaching or mentoring is going to happen, it’s going to be the PS coaching the PM.
In fact, an ideal situation would be one where both coach each other. The PS can coach the PM in motivating the project team or preparing reports that the executives understand and react to promptly, whereas the PM can have a primary role in coaching the sponsor in being a project sponsor! Some PMs do that through an interview at the beginning of the project or by having the project sponsor review and approve a “handbook” for communications, expectations, and questions to be answered, all actually delineating both roles.
In conclusion, the role of a project sponsor requires both art and science. The sponsor or top manager should be a key contributor to the success of the project by ensuring that they are doing a number of things like asking the right questions, preparing clear answers, motivating the project team, setting clear KPIs and criteria, listening carefully, dealing with ambiguity, helping the PM accept ambiguity, and sharing information that will help complete the project successfully. Truth is all of this requires a combination of “hard” and “soft” skills that are not always found in senior managers.
Written by Dr. Radhia Benalia on 10 September 2015 - Edited January 10, 2019
Reach for her directly on firstname.lastname@example.org