Do your Project Sponsors know
what they’re doing?

Project sponsorship is still the difference between project success and failure. So why is it that most organisations still under-invest in these critical skills and make the assumption that as soon as an individual reaches a particular level within a hierarchy they automatically have the skills to be successful?

Sure, they will often invest in training for Project Managers (whether it’s the ‘right’ kind of training, of course, is a blog post in itself), yet they will spend little or nothing on ensuring that senior managers have the skills to govern correctly.

So much rides on effective project sponsorship. It’s like knowing that you need a great finance system to help you manage costs and deliver value and then doing it all in Microsoft Word. It’s important but not that important.

It’s a bugbear of mine, because very little has changed in the world of project delivery. Organisations are still doing too many projects. They are still expecting too much from their people; missing deadlines and overrunning budgets. They continue to spend a disproportionate amount of time and money on creating processes and reports rather than ensuring that their people have the behaviours and skills to deliver the expected value.

Projects will always be a critical component of strategic delivery. They are the way that organisations fix things, increase profitability, become more efficient, increase productivity, reduce risk, increase capacity or develop new capabilities. Every organisation — regardless of size — does them and almost all focus on task completion as a barometer of success, rather than outcomes.

Here’s a simple question to help you decide whether you have the right approach. When you start a six-month project, do you:

a) Spend 4–6 weeks planning to ensure that you have the right team of people in place and understand what is required to build the required products to deliver the expected value in the business case; or

b) Just get started.

If you selected ‘a’ (and if it’s consistently ‘a’ for all of your projects, please get in touch as I’d love to write you up as a case study) well done, you’ve got it nailed. But it’s ‘b’ isn’t it?

‘But what’s this got to do with project sponsorship Colin?’ I hear you ask .

Well… here’s the thing. The Project Sponsor, i.e. the person accountable for ensuring that the value is delivered back to the organisation such that it can hit its targets (and consequently its strategy) is the person that should be insisting that option ‘a’ be adopted.

Of course, you would also hope that the Project Manager doesn’t abandon any integrity that they have and concede to taking a Nike approach (‘Just Do It!’). But, the Sponsor cannot have the confidence of value (or benefit) delivery if the Project Manager doesn’t do their job in the right way, so it’s up to them to ensure that it happens.

If it doesn’t, then they are the ones that should be on the hook, not the Project Manager, yet all too often it’s the latter who is presenting at senior management team meetings and explaining what went wrong, instead of the accountable person!

A Sponsor’s role — as I wrote about in The Project Book — is to do the following three things really well:

  1. Be a steward — demonstrate leadership, take public accountability, say thank you, set expectation, assume trust, keep things simple and be present
  2. Make decisions — help the Project Manager to maintain progress, release funds when required, decline new scope where it doesn’t add to the expected benefits, deal with poor performance and even kill the project when expected project costs outstrip value
  3. Ensure results are delivered — remain focused on benefits throughout the project, ensure change management isn’t reduced to training and communication, be creative and flexible and have the foresight to spot when people are struggling or things are off-track.

Being a good Project Sponsor is not simply a case of showing up once a month to chair a project steering committee meeting badly or ‘wearing a different hat’. It’s often a different set of clothes… that pinch in uncomfortable places. I’ve had a fair amount of experience of great project sponsorship and it is absolutely the difference between success and failure.

Here’s a list of what great Sponsors do well:

  • Appoint the project management team, including the Project Manager
  • Oversee the development of the business case, ensuring it’s aligned to strategy
  • Clarify and monitor organisation priorities, making decisions as required
  • Be an active team member throughout team building and project planning
  • Gain buy-in from senior stakeholders
  • Secure funding for the project
  • Ensure suppliers are well managed
  • Ensure the benefits promised in the business case can be delivered
  • Manage the project manager
  • Ensure the risks associated with the business case are identified, assessed and controlled by the project manager
  • Monitor and control the progress of the project at a strategic level, ensuring consistent alignment to the business case
  • Escalate high risks and issues to senior management as appropriate
  • Make decisions on escalated issues, with particular focus on continual business justification
  • Organise and chair project steering committee meetings
  • Ensure overall business assurance of the project
  • Be a good human who acts as a behavioural role model for the rest of the team to follow.

So, having reviewed this list, ask yourself again, do your Sponsors understand their role? If not, it’s time to invest in these critical skills to help them. Being a great Project Sponsor doesn’t come automatically with a promotion, it’s a different set of skills and behaviours and without them, it will be very difficult for an organisation to deliver its strategy. It’s that important.