Combatting IT failure rates through IT program executive sponsorship

Doctoral Affiliate of University of Liverpool UK,
Managing Director, Building4Business Pty Ltd

Roula Michaelides, PhD

Director of Programmes: Project Management, The Management School,
University of Liverpool, UK


Program management is widely perceived as a powerful agent of achieving organizational strategic change and enabling operational, service, and process transformation, as well as new product development. However, high IT program and project failure rates are still a constant global phenomenon.

This research adds to the evidence that executive sponsorship is critical for successful program delivery. Executive sponsorship has been found to be key to effective change, engaging stakeholders, realization of benefits, efficient delivery, and protecting the business investment. More recently, the lack of sponsorship was cited by the Project Management Institute (PMI®) (2013) as a fundamental reason for project failure. This is in line with recent research by Young and Poon (2013), where top management support is highlighted as significant for success.

This paper investigates executive sponsorship and proposes a number of leadership sponsorship competencies required for program success. The research is grounded in complex adaptive systems (CAS) and extends the existing literature on governance and sponsorship, by identifying key competencies and proposing effective methods for the development of these competencies (Uhl-Bien, Marion, & McKelvey, 2007).

Ensuring program success is highly topical, given the persistently high percentage of failure among IT programs or projects which ranges between 30-70% (Charette, 2005; Miller, 2002). Failure is often characterized by budget overrun, schedule slippage, or the nondelivery of the quality requirements and benefits. It has been highlighted that IT projects typically overrun budget by 200% and schedule by 50% (Stanley & Uden, 2013, p. 422). The cost of failure is now being quantified in billions of dollars and the effect of failure is further amplified by corporate collapses following major program failures. Given the significant investment in programs and projects, the cost of failure is alarming for practitioners, as well as policymakers.

This Australian research has significant implications for program boards or steering committee members, program management professionals, and researchers. The key findings support the emphasis on executive sponsorship or top management support as a major contributor to the success of an IT program; and that executive sponsorship was required, not only by the executive sponsor, but by all of the sponsoring group. Key executive sponsorship competencies identified herewith included those required for successful change: championing the change, delivery of IT, and enabling and adaptive leadership. Through the development and adoption of the executive sponsorship competencies identified by this research, a decrease in the IT program failure rate percentage is expected in the future.

Keywords: IT programs; IT program failure; executive sponsorship; executive sponsor; enabling leadership


Executive involvement, or top management support, has been referred to in literature as a critical success factor of an IT program or project for several years (Pinto & Slevin, 1987). Pinto and Mantel (1990) determined that the first two critical success factors for projects were that the project mission was understood and that there was top management support. Recent research by Young and Poon (2013) found top management support was shown to be the most important factor for project success. In this research, top management support is referred to as executive sponsorship. The current literature asserts that the role of the sponsor and their sponsorship within IT programs measurably increases project success (PMI, 2012). Description and evaluation of the IT failure rate has been widely publicized. However, KPMG International (2006) found that executive sponsorship, scope, and processes were three major contributors to project failure. Despite the extensive scholar and practitioner focus, IT program/project failures continue to unravel at an even higher pace.

Young and Poon (2013) referred to the “persistent issue of IT project failure” which “despite over 50 years of intensive effort, remains unsolved” (p. 943). As cited by Bronte-Stewart (2009), Sauer and Cuthbertson (2003) who referred to an Oxford University survey that reported “only 16% of IT projects were successful, around 74% were ‘challenged,’ and 10% were abandoned”(Bronte-Stewart, 2009, p. 2). Stanley and Uden (2013, p. 422) quoted Bronte-Stewart’s 2009 research, where a study of 50 government projects over 20 years, “found that those involving technology innovation and systems development ran over budget by 200% and over the contract duration by 50%” (Stanley & Uden, 2013, p. 422). The definition of failure can vary. However, most commonly, failure is deemed to be budget overrun, schedule slippage, or the nondelivery of the quality requirements (McManus & Harper, 2007, p. 38).

The financial impact of these IT program failures is significant considering the failure rate is between 30–70% (Charette, 2005; Miller, 2002). To highlight the investment magnitude in some of these IT programs, Charette (2005) stated that “in 2003, the UK had over 100 government IT projects underway totaling (US)$20.3 billion” and “In 2004, the U.S. government catalogued 1200 civilian IT projects costing more than (US)$60 billion, plus another (US)$16 billion for military software” (p. 45). It is straightforward to deduce that 30–70% of US$20.3 billion in the UK or US$76 billion in the United States represents significant investment. Even more recently, it has become evident that, on average, one-third a project’s budget was lost on failure (PMI, 2012). In a European context, McManus and Wood-Harper (2007), according to Stanley and Uden (2013, p. 38), determined that the cost of project failure across Europe in 2004 was US$142 billion. The effect of failure is further amplified by Argenti (1976), who determined that major program failure preceded corporate collapse in young and mature organizations. As such, the cost of failure is significant.

Although there has been an increase in the literature surrounding the role of the sponsor and sponsorship, Crawford, et al. (2008) found that “the role is largely unexplored” (p. 47). Most recently, the Standish Group’s research (2013) found that 70% of large project failures had an executive sponsor demonstrating poor skills and concluded that the overarching cause of IT failure was the lack of executive sponsorship (Carroll, 2013, p. 1). Persistent failures of IT programs and their investments, coupled with more complex development environments and tighter budgets, means that the need to understand executive sponsorship is even more urgent. Also, the need to approach IT programs using a formal methodology that reflects the complexity of these systems is apparent.

A novel body of literature is considering IT programs as complex adaptive systems (CAS) (Benbya & McKelvey, 2006). This is primarily due to their inherent complexity, nonlinearity, adaptivity, and emergent nature; and therefore, co-evolution, self-organization, interactivity, and interdependencies between agents (McCarthy, Tsinopoulos, Allen, & Rose-Anderssen, 2006, p. 437). Complex adaptive systems (CAS) is a branch of complexity sciences and was used as a new theoretical lens to unpack executive leadership capabilities in this research.

Uhl-Bien et al. (2007) created a Complexity Leadership Theory (CLT) framework for CAS comprising three leadership competencies: administrative, adaptive, and enabling leadership. As enabling leadership in the CLT framework acts as the interface between administrative leadership and adaptive leadership, this concept was adopted here and extended to the governance structure of IT programs. It is proposed that the enabling leadership competency, through executive sponsorship from a program’s board members, would provide the interface between the adaptive program and the administrative organization. This research explored this concept to determine whether enabling leadership was a key competency of sponsorship and builds on the attributes of sponsorship (Helm & Remington, 2005).

This research extends the existing literature through confirmation of the importance of sponsorship and leadership, the identification of competencies required for executive sponsorship, and the method to develop them. Narrowing the existing gap in the knowledge of sponsorship competencies will potentially result in a greater program success rate. Exploring and extending the current CAS research will contribute to the practitioners in this discipline and to the greater body of knowledge in understanding executive sponsorship for IT programs.

Summary of Relevant Literature

A literature search was conducted in the associated areas of program management, IT program failure, program sponsorship, top management support, and program leadership. The management of programs, projects, and portfolios “is no longer a sub-discipline of engineering” and is used widely by organizations for the implementation of strategy, transformation, and new product development, (Winter, Smith, Morris, & Cicmil, 2006, p. 638). Program management as a discipline has only developed over the past fifteen years, as opposed to project management, which has developed over the past 60 years (PMI, 2013). The real world of programs is complex, unpredictable, and multidimensional (Winter et al., 2006).

IT programs operate within a permanent organization and are a “temporary organization structure to direct, coordinate, and oversee the implementation of a number of related projects and activities to produce outcomes and benefits” that would not be otherwise achievable (Office of Government Commerce UK, 2007, p.4). The governance structure of these programs is crucial to the success of the program, and sponsorship and sponsors are essential in these governance structures. The ownership of programs is usually at the executive or board level, as listed in the comparison of attributes between projects and programs in Table 1 (ILX Group, 2010).

Project Attribute Program
Visionary, Precise, usually well focused Scope Usually imprecise
Variable Risk High
Variable Politics Highly charged
Medium term Planning Horizon Long term
Middle/senior management Ownership Executive / Board
Output oriented Objectives Results oriented
Well defined skill set Management Team Requires broad range of skills
Usually linear Lifecycle Non-linear, iterative
Local, divisional Impact Corporate/multi-organizational
Usually fixed Goals Change during program
Local disaster Failure Corporate disaster
Usually one Executive Sponsorship Normally multiple
Single, or multi-discipline Discipline Always multi-discipline
Clear, stable Dependencies Requires vigilance, dynamic
Outputs, systems, new skills Deliverables Business change, outcomes, services
Variable, but well defined Extent of Change High, evolves during program
Variable Complexity High
From project outputs Benefits From inter-related projects

Table 1. Project program attributes, (IXL Group, 2010)

Executive sponsorship within the Program board provides a dynamic link between the organization and the IT program, and from organizational governance to IT program governance. The executive sponsor or business owner is the individual who provides the initial sponsorship and cultivates sponsorship for the program across other program board members. Therefore, program success is not only reliant on individual executive sponsorship, but also the executive sponsorship across the governance structure. To cultivate sponsorship, the executive needs to know the competencies that executive sponsorship requires.

A competency is defined by Vincent (2008), as “the quality of state of being functionally adequate or having sufficient knowledge, know how, or skill” (p. 1). So, nowadays, when asking as to whether a person has the right competencies, we are asking, “who knows how?” or “how well do they know?” (Vincent, 2008).

A number of researchers have focused on governance and sponsorship (Helm & Remington, 2005; Crawford et al., 2008). Helm and Remington (2005) expressed surprise that given the recognized correlation between a sponsor and the success of a project little had been written about the attributes of a sponsor. Through grounded research, Helm and Remington (2005) identified the key attributes of successful project sponsorship. They found that project managers manage projects in different ways and developed different behaviors to compensate for inadequate sponsorship (Helm & Remington, 2005). Their study involved in-depth interviews with project managers of infrastructure projects and assessed the effectiveness of the role of the executive sponsor.

Attributes and competencies are considered separately, but are linked. The University of Victoria (2011, p. 1) defined an attribute as “an inherent characteristic or quality often expressed through what you think, do, and feel,” whereas a competency comprises skill, knowledge, and attributes. A competency is a set of related knowledge, skills, and abilities to successfully perform critical work functions. Competencies are key to the effectiveness of performance in a particular area. Competencies are described in ways that are “observable, measurable, linked to the workplace and life experiences, transferable, and based on performance” (University of Victoria, 2011, p.1). As this research focuses on competencies of sponsorship, it is anticipated that the attributes identified by Helm and Remington (2005) will be linked to the key findings.

Programs are “ideally suited to manage change in organizations” due to their uncertainty and ambiguity and cyclical process of development, (PMI, 2013, p. 67). The change may be cultural, transformational, industrial, organizational or multinational, and/or coupled with IT to provide the enablement of change. Change, crisis, and complex adaptive systems are all concepts embedded in complexity sciences. Dooley (1997) asserts that a complex adaptive systems (CAS) framework can be used to study dynamic systems and change in organizations. In addition, CAS can define the leader’s role and leading processes, (Uhl-Bien et al., 2007; Ford, 2010, p. 420). Ford (2010) determined that this type of change consisted of adaptations that emerge from creativity and improvisation. The author concluded that the CAS leadership competencies that produce outcomes included those in Uhl-Bien, et al.’s (2007) CLT framework (Ford, 2010).

Uhl-Bien et al. (2007) created a CLT framework for CAS comprising three leadership competencies:

  • Administrative leadership which is bureaucratic and controlling;
  • Adaptive leadership which is dynamic and needed for change and innovation; and
  • Enabling leadership which is necessary for creative problem solving, adaptability, and learning.

Uhl-Bien, et al. (2007) defined administrative leadership as managing the planning, coordination, and organizing of the organizational activities. Administrative leadership provides finance, budgeting, marketing, public relations, and human resource management (Ford, 2010). Comparatively, “adaptive leadership manages the processes through which change emerges” through the orchestration of interdependent interactions that produce information and resources collectively (Uhl-Bien et al., 2007).

The definition of adaptive leadership is aligned to that of the leadership of a program. An IT program is where there are a number of interdependent projects that are run collectively (as a program) to produce information and resources for an organization. These programs are ‘orchestrated’ by a program director/manager. Programs may be initiated to deliver change in parts of organizations, across organizations, across industries, or globally.

However, to facilitate and bring change into the organization, it is argued that enabling leadership is required. Enabling leadership is the third CAS competency outlined by Uhl-Bien et al. (2007). “Enabling leadership fosters and catalyses continuous, emergent change through managing levels of interdependency, tension, and interaction by coordinating the interface between adaptive and administrative leadership” (Ford, 2010, p. 424). Enabling leadership encourages innovation, learning, and adaptation through network connectivity, alignment of divergent skills, and knowledge; and facilitating the interface between the adaptive environment and the administrative environment through information flows (Ford, 2010). Ford (2010) determined that, “facilitating connectivity via independent relations between departments evidenced enabling leadership” (p. 430). Enabling leadership creates appropriate organizational conditions to foster effective adaptive leadership in places where innovation and adaptability are needed, such as programs, and facilitates the flow of knowledge and creativity from these adaptive structures into the administrative or bureaucratic structures (Uhl-Bien et al., 2007). Enabling leadership acts as an interface between administrative and adaptive leadership and “manages the administrative-to-adaptive and innovation-to-organization interfaces,” (Uhl-Bien & Marion (2009, p. 306). Enabling leadership acts as a bridge to provide the interaction between the organizational administrative leadership and the adaptive leadership required by the IT program.

The coordination of the interface between the organization and an IT program is done through a governance structure, called the program board or steering committee. “A programme needs clear and open governance if it is to be successful” (Office of Government Commerce, 2007, p. 19). The program board is chaired by the executive sponsor. The executive sponsor is integral to the program and has a critical role in enabling the adaptivity and innovation of the program.

The executive sponsor is the person who owns the program and is accountable for its outcome (sometimes referred to as the Senior Responsible Officer [SRO]). The executive sponsor owns the vision for the program and provides clear leadership and direction throughout its life, securing the funds required to set up and run the program, and fund the transition activities to ensure the benefits are realized. The executive sponsor ensures the interfaces with stakeholders are effective, and maintains the alignment of the program to the organization’s strategic direction. The executive sponsor also provides the initial sponsorship for the program and engenders this sponsorship to members of the program board.

The program board is considered to be the interface between the adaptive program and the administrative organization. The program requires sponsorship from the program board to deliver changes into the organization. “Members of the program board must establish a style of leadership appropriate to the organization and nature of the change” (OGC, 2007, p. 30). The program may require changes to organizational structures, policies, roles and responsibilities, work practices, processes, procedures, and technology. It may require changes to a vendor’s technology if the program necessitates industry change. Sponsorship is required from the executive sponsor and the program board. As such, this research presents the argument that sponsorship must establish a CAS enabling leadership as a core competency.

The governance organization structure of a program is illustrated in Figure 1: Program Governance Structure.

Program governance structure (adapted, OGC, 2007)

Figure 1. Program governance structure (adapted, OGC, 2007)

It is worthwhile to note that the illustrations of these governance structures rarely include the relationship to the organization. As such, it is difficult to see the interpretation of the CAS leadership competencies and how this could apply to IT programs and their program governance structures. To assist this understanding, Figure 2 shows the deemed relationship between a program and the organization, as well as the CAS leadership competencies. Administrative leadership managing actions and products of organizational activities; enabling leadership of the program board’s sponsorship, interfacing between the organization and the program; and adaptive leadership for the innovative environment of a program.

Relationships between CAS competencies and IT programs

Figure 2. Relationships between CAS competencies and IT programs

As the facilitator between the organization and the program, this research proposed that sponsorship of the executive sponsor and the program board requires enabling leadership as a core competency. Schultz (2013) stated that, “leadership requires mastery of a competency-based skill set that can be learnt and practiced by anyone,” and that “leaders inspire others to work for the benefit of the organization” (p. 47).

There has been considerable discourse around the development of competence and leadership competency in the workforce. Schon (1992) queried, “What are the processes by which some people learn to internalize, criticize, and reproduce the demonstrated competence of acknowledged masters?” (p. 62). Through the research of competency development, McKnight (2011), found that “collaboration in the workplace was important in developing professional competence,” and that “learning through application was a key theme” (p. 19). The authors found that “the experience of, and preference for, on-the-job learning did not merely consist of personal reflection on learning or practice, but rather was facilitated through observation and collaboration by way of a support network consisting of peers, colleagues, and mentors” (McKnight, 2011, p. 9). This research was reflective of Schon’s model of reflection-in-action, which was presented at Harvard in 1992. Schon (1992, p. 11) advocated that, “a skillful physician, lawyer, manager, or architect continually engages in a process of appreciating, probing, modem, experimenting, diagnosing, psyching out, and evaluating,” and that their professional competency was developed through reflection-in-action (1992, p. 62). Schon’s work shows a subtle difference between “teachers” and those who help others learn to reflect-in-action, such as “coaches of reflection-in-action” (1992, p. 62). Coaches of reflection-in-action “demand a capacity for reflection-in-action on the student’s intuitive understanding of the problem at hand, the intervention that …might enable her to take the next useful step” (Schon, 1992, p. 62).


This exploratory research utilized phenomenology to focus on how people experienced a particular phenomenon which in this case, was sponsorship (Vanderstoep & Johnston, 2009). “Phenomenology is the study of the experiences of individuals who have lived through similar events and circumstances” (Savin-Badin & Howell Major, 2010, p. 158). “Phenomenology is the study of lived, human phenomena within the everyday social contexts” (Somekh & Lewin, 2010, p. 121). Van Manen (1990, p. 90) noted that phenomenology always involves retrospective reflection on an experience.

A phenomenological approach was utilized to provide insights of sponsorship within the context of IT programs and organizations. This approach sought to understand the participants’ conscious ways of construing the program context, sponsorship, leadership, and competencies, (Creswell, 2007). There are two approaches in phenomenology; direct and indirect. A direct approach was used for primary research, where participants were asked to reflect on and talk about their experience of being a sponsor and sponsorship competencies that were required, while I as the researcher, remained detached, Somekh and Lewin (2010). This approach is based on the ‘Husserlian’ tradition of bracketing so that preconceptions and presuppositions are put aside (Wimpenny & Gas, 2000, p. 1486). Based on the initial literature review, semi-structured interview questions that guided in-depth interviews were then developed. The current research required a qualitative methodology that would enable common themes to emerge from primary, interview-detailed data of the lived experience, as well as to confirm that enabling leadership was a competency required by sponsorship.

Data Collection

Data was collected through semi-structured interviews with 25 executive sponsors of both large successful and not successful IT programs in both the public and private sector. The data sample was a purposeful sample and selected due their involvement in major IT programs, both successful and unsuccessful. Individuals were identified from executive referrals, the Attorney General’s report, and through Government Gateway program evaluation processes. The 25 executive sponsors included 22 males and three females and had a wealth of experience across multiple industries. These 25 executive sponsors represent convenience sampling. Several executive sponsors did not agree to be interviewed even though they were known to be highly effective sponsors. It was appreciated that executives have limited time and that the programs they had sponsored may have been deemed too far back in history for reflection.

Twenty five interviews were conducted, with an average duration of one to two hours. To encourage open and frank discussion, anonymity and confidentiality of information was guaranteed. This enabled the executive sponsor to recount their life experience of executive sponsorship within a real world context. During the semi-structured interviews, many sponsors related different program experiences to amplify or clarify the response to the question.

All interviews were transcribed and coded. The response was often paraphrased to the executive sponsor to ensure the meaning was summarized correctly. These summaries were captured by writing at the point of interview. This enabled textual analysis subsequent to the interviews to determine common themes.

The original research design was to include fellow program board members and conduct case studies. However this did not eventuate and, as such, the research approach was adjusted.

Data Analysis, Interpretation and Representation

Throughout the interviews, the stories and descriptions provided by participants were reduced to their essential themes, and a systematic analysis of the words and concepts was used to specifically identify executive sponsorship competencies. The aim was to create a better understanding of sponsorship and interpretation of the stories from those who had actually experienced it. Repeating themes began to appear after several interviews.

An analysis of the data collected was conducted to establish the patterns and themes within the results and to determine shared meanings among participants. This interpretative analysis was an interactive, inductive process of decontextualization and recontextualization, (Starks & Trinidad, 2007). Through the recontextualization and inductive analysis, the data was organized and coded around central themes and relationships drawn across all interviews.

Key Findings

The key findings of the research have been presented in accordance with the objectives of the research. The interview responses were analyzed to determine the common responses, themes, and patterns; and where possible, quantification of responses has been included.

The types of programs sponsored by the executive sponsors all included change of a transformational nature and all included information technology infrastructure as an enabler. All programs discussed were considered to be highly political, highly complex, and high risk to the organizations. The complexity and risk were determined by the magnitude of the impact on the organization (OGC, 2007).

Confirm the Importance of High Level Sponsorship and Leadership for Successful Programs.

Sponsorship was considered by 80% of participants to be key to the success of a program. Comments were provided such as:

“Sponsorship is vital to the success of the program.”
“Sponsorship is critical to a program.”
“Sponsorship is very important to the program and programs need a sponsor regardless of size.”
“Sponsorship is protecting the business.”

Participants believed that sponsorship was key to effective change, engaged stakeholders, and the ability to acquire the benefits. In their experience, participants had found that sponsors may elect to sponsor a program. However, programs are mainly assigned to a sponsor or are delegated. A sponsor is then placed in a difficult position if they do not believe in the program.

Ascertain the Competencies Required for Executive Sponsorship.

This was a difficult area for participants, and responses included competencies, skills, attributes, and values. As such, further inductive analysis was conducted to structure the responses into competencies in Table 2: Executive sponsorship competencies. The competency order has been determined by the number of times the competency was identified. Further clarification of the executive sponsorship competencies is provided through the inclusion of the original language used by the participants in Appendix A.

No. Executive Sponsorship Competencies Number of Responses
1 Championing Change 25
2 Program Delivery/Implementation or Service Delivery 24
3 Leadership 21
4 Authority 15
5 Team Orientation 15
6 Stakeholder Relationship 13
7 Change Awareness 12
8 Strategic Thinking 12
9 Effective Communication 11
10 Marketing 10
11 Business Acumen 9
12 Commitment 9
13 Emotional Intelligence 9
14 Influence 8
15 Outcome Focus 8
16 Financial Acumen 7
17 Conflict Management 6
18 Consulting Skills 6
19 Contract Monitoring 6
20 Ownership 5
21 Benefits Understanding 4
22 Chair Experience 4
23 Empathy 4
24 Risk Orientation 4
25 Vision 4
26 Experience 4
27 Program Governance 3
28 Accountability 3
29 Innovation 3
30 Technology Awareness 3
31 Drive 2
32 Ethics 2
33 Value Focus 2
34 Intuition 1
35 Leaning Ability 1

Table 2. Executive sponsorship competencies identified

The top 10 competencies identified repeatedly by participants, are illustrated in Figure 3 and have been extracted into Table 3, Top 10 most identified sponsorship competencies.

Top 10 most identified executive sponsorship competencies

Figure 3. Top 10 most identified executive sponsorship competencies

No Executive Sponsorship Competencies Responses % of Participants
1 Championing Change 25 100%
2 Delivery/Service Delivery 24 96%
3 Leadership; Enabling, Adaptive, Administrative 21 84%
4 Authority 15 60%
5 Team Orientation 15 60%
6 Stakeholder Relationship 13 52%
7 Change Awareness 12 48%
8 Strategic Thinking 12 48%
9 Effective Communication 11 44%
10 Marketing 10 40%

Table 3. Top 10 most identified executive sponsorship competencies

Identify if a Key Competency is Enabling Leadership.

The CAS leadership competency model was discussed with each of the 25 interviewees. Overall, as shown in Table 4, 84% of participants agreed that the CAS competencies of leadership were key to sponsorship; with 48% of participants recognizing enabling leadership as a competency. All three CLT leadership competencies were identified, with the responses evidenced in Table 5. Many participants believed that this competency would facilitate change and enable the business to support the program. Many also agreed that it would provide the interaction between the organizational administrative leadership and the adaptive leadership required by the IT program. Participants also recognized the importance of adaptive leadership, as can be seen by the comments below.

“Enabling and adaptive leadership is required by both sponsor and program director/manager.” “Enabling leadership is needed for clearing roadblocks, and obtaining funding and resources.” “Enabling leadership is needed to understand strategic alignment; why the program is important; what changes will implicate strategic service; relationship management; business; and IT understanding.”

Only 4% of participants believed that although this competency would be beneficial, it was not a mandatory requirement. Whereas 8% of participants either did not agree with the model or did not believe that it was a key competency. Table 4 shows the total number of participants who identified leadership as a key competency, whereas Table 5 shows the breakdown of these figures to the three types of leadership in the complexity leadership theory (CLT) in complex adaptive systems (CAS).

Leadership #Participants %Participants Response
Leadership Overall 21 84% Agreed

Table 4. Leadership competencies

CAS Leadership CLT Competencies #Participants %Participants Response
Enabling Leadership 12 48% Agreed
Adaptive Leadership 5 20% Agreed
Administrative Leadership 1 4% Agreed
1 4% Beneficial, but not necessary
2 8% Disagree

Table 5. CAS and CLT leadership competencies

The same participants agreed that administrative leadership would be applicable to the organization. This was consistent with the literature findings and, in particular with Uhl-Bien et al.’s (2007) CLT framework.

The top five executive sponsorship competencies identified through this research support the findings by Helm and Remington (2005, p. 54) summarized in Table 6, of the attributes identified for sponsors. This shows consistency between theory and empirical findings.

Sponsorship Competencies Sponsor Attributes (Helm & Remington, 2005)
Influence Appropriate seniority and power within the organization
Governance Political knowledge of the organization and political savvy
Leadership Ability and willingness to make connections between project and organization
Championing Change Courage and willingness to battle with others in the organization on behalf of the project
Team Orientation Ability to motivate the team to deliver the vision and provide ad hoc support to the project team
Service Delivery Willingness to partner with the project manager and project team
Effective Communication Excellent communication skills
Emotional Intelligence Personally compatible with other key players
Authority Ability and willingness to provide objectivity and challenge the project

Table 6. Sponsorship competencies and sponsor attributes

Determine the Means of Competency Development

Participants were asked how the competencies that a sponsor requires could be developed, which included enabling leadership. This was a point of reflection throughout the primary research and 68% of participants recommended that the method to develop the identified competencies for sponsors was through coaching and mentoring. They did not believe that these competencies could be obtained through a training course. Responses included:

“Mentoring and coaching.”
“A lot of informal mentoring due to time constraints.”
“Coaching, mentoring, and stories.”
“Rotation through operations and programs in an organization.”
“Need to build sponsorship competencies and capability in the business.”
“Transfer of experience from independent advisors.”
“Invest in someone who has the skill and the ability to transfer knowledge to others as part of project initiation.”

This is contrasted with the research conducted in the UK in 2009 on senior responsible officers (SROs), that is the sponsor, which found that over 80% of SROs stated they “would have found training around the role of the SRO and program management would have been useful when they first took on the role of the SRO (Mansell & Barnes, 2009, p. 10).

In comparing the training material for sponsorship, ILX Group (2010), found that there were many aspects included in the material that support the development of the top 10 identified sponsorship competencies found in this research. However, there needs to be clarity in the roles of the executive sponsor, the sponsor and the program manager. Lack of role clarity can lead to rework or duplication of effort, which in turn leads to inconsistency in work performance. Clarity of roles and responsibilities is required for good governance and a successful program. In addition, there was minimal reference in the sponsorship training, given to the competency of marketing or the selling of the program, which were deemed to be in the top 10 identified sponsorship competencies required.

Program Governance

The responses from the primary research included a lot of rich information not related specifically to competencies, but to the rationale of why IT programs fail, particularly related to program governance. The governance structure details were not captured in this research, rather the issues surrounding governance structures. Common statements included:

“There is a compliance ‘tick the box mentality’ within governance structures.”
“Program governance is not providing a forum for the hard discussions.”

“The right people are not involved in program governance.”
“The right program governance structures are in place, but roles are not understood or carried out.”
“Benefits realization is not adhered to, and is given lip service.”
“There is not enough understanding of risks, risk mitigation, and impacts.”
“Vendor management is not done well.”
“There is non-transparency of reporting and not enough understanding of capex and opex.”
“In broad terms, organizations do not appear to be addressing the issue. Too much is being swept under the carpet.”


This research set out to establish strong empirical validation that executive sponsorship is indeed vital for the successful delivery of an IT program. This has been achieved and our findings align with a number of key theoretical propositions, (Young & Poon, 2013; Crawford et al., 2008; Helm & Remington, 2005; Pinto & Mantel, 1990; PMI, 2012). Participants agreed that executive sponsorship is a salient factor for success of an IT program. The research also confirmed that executive sponsorship was required by all members of the sponsoring group, and not just by the executive sponsor. One person alone cannot effect strategic change.

In addition to this contribution, the research posits that executive sponsorship is a multi-dimensional construct extending further than the obvious competencies expected of an executive, such as administrative leadership. Given the dynamic and complex nature of IT programs, where ambitious project goals, unpredictable innovative outcomes and multiple, interdependent multi-agency relationships are evident; enabling and adaptive leadership is key.

Indeed, innovative program leadership competencies are critical to manage relationships in programs where there is non-linear progress and an increased heterogeneity of change agents, (Cicmil, Cooke-Davies, Crawford, & Richardson, 2009). According to Ewusi-Mensah (1997) in Bronte-Stewart (2009), “IS projects are unique in that they are conceptual in nature and require the intense collaboration of several different groups of stakeholders including IT staff, users, and management”. Enabling leadership facilitates the flow of knowledge and creativity from adaptive structures into the organizational administrative structures to enable change to occur. Commitment to enabling leadership may motivate the organization to take action for learning and developing competencies for executive sponsors. Further, as internal and external interventions continue, iterative and evolutionary change in an IT program journey persists. As expected, championing change and leadership are highlighted in these findings as key competencies.

The number of times a competency was identified by the participants presents an interesting landscape. Vision is often referred to as one of the key competencies required for executive sponsorship, (ILX Group, 2010). However, the participants in this research did not identify vision as often as one would have expected. Yet, strategic thinking was identified multiple times and as such, was considered to be eighth in the listing. One could argue that vision is part of strategic thinking. However, strategic thinking is far broader than vision alone. The other area of particular interest was that of the requirement of service delivery/delivery implementation experience and yet, the requirement for technology awareness was very low. Is this research suggesting that the competencies of service delivery and implementation are transferable across industries and are not just relevant to IT? Is IT becoming purely thought of as infrastructure only? Alternatively, given that all of the executive sponsors interviewed had led significant IT programs, was technology awareness an assumed competency and, as such, only identified by a few?

The ILX Group (2010) sponsorship training course includes leadership, vision, delivery, change, financial acumen, stakeholder relationships, effective communications, program governance, risk orientation, benefits understanding, and contract monitoring. Although these competences include a subset of those identified by this research, the participants proposed that coaching and mentoring would provide a more effective approach than a training course. As a solution, it was suggested that an independent member be included on the program board/steering committee, one who could provide the coaching and mentoring to develop the identified executive sponsorship competencies. The question arises whether this is a local issue only. Further information on the success of sponsorship training courses was not available at the time of writing.

The persistent cost of failure of IT programs—in both the public and private sector is evidenced globally. It is clearly alarming given the magnitude of investment involved in these change programs. “A great deal of the £24 billion or so being spent on IT each year in the UK (BCS 2004) is being wasted” (Bronte-Stewart, 2009, p.17). Charette (2005) revealed that the average investment of each program is US$63 million in private organizations and US$203 million in the government sector. From a financial perspective, the investment magnitude of these programs is likened to the size of a small business. Indeed, within our research context of the Australian market, IT programs’ investment figures are higher than the turnover of 94% of Australian corporations (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2007). Given the significant market investment, it is not surprising that the continuous high failure rate of IT programs troubles the project management profession as well as market and government leaders alike. IT projects have a bad reputation for going over budget and schedule, not realizing expectations, and for providing poor return on investment (McManus & Wood-Harper, 2007). The Standish Group report (1995) identified that even in mature markets, such as the United States, more than US$250 billion each year was spent on IT application development equating to approximately 175,000 projects. In this report, it is calculated that the average cost of a development project for a large company is US$2,322,000; for a medium company, it is US$1,331,000; and for a small company, it is US$434,000.

With sponsorship highlighted as the most prominent failure cause and because of the high financial costs of failure, it is urgent that executive sponsors understand the dynamics of sponsorship and the competencies involved.


Program management is a modern extension to project management. IT Programs are complex, multi-dimensional systems that require strong leadership. The findings of this research confirmed that the complex adaptive systems (CAS) leadership competencies: enabling, adaptive, and to a much lesser degree, administrative leadership, were considered necessary for executive sponsorship within a program’s governing body.

However, the most identified competency for executive sponsorship was “championing the change.” It is recognized that programs are a strategy implementation process that invoke change in organizations. Championing change requires the commitment and support from leaders in an organization to promote and motivate the organization (PMI, 2013). This research confirmed that executive sponsorship was needed by all members on the governing body to champion the change. The research poses significant implications for program boards or steering committee members, program management professionals, and researchers.

This Australian research has provided empirical evidence to extend the current literature concerning executive sponsorship or top management support. It was determined that every IT program, regardless of its size, needed a sponsor and that executive sponsorship was key to effective change, engaging stakeholders, realization of benefits, and protecting the business.

Knowing what and knowing how are the first two tenets in evidence-based management, Rousseau (2008). Knowing what competencies are required for executive sponsorship and how to development them provides executive sponsors with the basis for learning. This then requires the executive sponsor to learn how to learn (Rousseau, 2008). According to our research findings, executive sponsorship development in Australia has been through experience and ‘hard yards.’ Given the reliance on tacit knowledge, participants believed that coaching and mentoring were the most effective methods for the development of the identified competencies. This poses a key question. What would motivate executive sponsors to learn from others to develop executive sponsorship competencies?

Limitations and Future Research Avenues

The major limitation of this research was the relatively small number of executive sponsors involved. This research was based on a purposeful sample of industry-known participants. The expansion of the research would need to critically evaluate the participant’s record of successful programs. However, this research could be expanded to include a greater number of participants not only in Australia, but across the globe. The expansion of this research may identify further competencies, but could validate the correlation between the number of times a competency was identified and the ranking of competencies.

Further research would be to ascertain if the existence of these competencies improves the IT change programs’ success. This would support the hypothesis that as these executive sponsorship competencies develop, that there is a decrease in the IT program failure rate percentage.

Responses from participants in this research continued to surface questions surrounding governance structures of programs. The research found that sponsorship was very much intertwined with program governance structures and that program governance structures are evolving in organizations; trying to mitigate IT program or project failure rates and investment losses. Changes to governance structures found through this research included the addition of an independent steering committee member; the use of an independent chair; the formation of separate corporate board subcommittees with specialist advisors to the program; the review of corporate initiatives by a corporate board subcommittee; the inclusion of an executive and a day-to-day sponsor; and the use of a corporate program office or enterprise program management office reporting directly to the CEO. The notion of program governance being a reflection of corporate governance was also explored. Given the overwhelming feedback on governance and governance structures, are executive sponsorship and governance the keys to unraveling the IT program failure rate?

The governance structure outlined by the Office of Government Commerce (OGC) (2007), included a sponsoring group, as well as a program board. The sponsoring group is outlined to “champion the implementation of new capabilities” and “enable the delivery of change,” (OGC, 2007, p. 29, p. 149). Championing and enabling leadership were identified in this research as key competencies of sponsorship. Questions remain. Have program governance structures merged these two governance bodies, hence the need for these competencies by the program board? Should a governance body remain focused on budget, schedule, and meeting requirements as success criteria? Are these the main measures executives are held accountable for? The question on governance structure was delimited from the current study and thus, triggers the need for further research in this area, as well as the intersection between program governance and corporate governance.

Appendix A

The following table provides further clarification of the identified competencies through the inclusion of the original language used by participants.

No. Sponsorship Competencies Number of Responses Language Used by Participants (duplications not included)
1 Championing
25 Champion the cause
Champion and influence others
Alpha person to run with it
Belief in what the program is doing
Capability of sponsor to love the program and understand it
Who CARES the most; outcome, process, people, delivery
Chief advocate
Passion so that everything in the program is delivered
People are valued regardless of hierarchy.
Strength of their convictions
Strength to turn tap off if not going as expected
To build something useful, needs dictator and support.
T rusted
2 Delivery/
Service Delivery
24 Program and portfolio management
Deep and clear understanding of the problem and the landscape
Discipline knowledge
Knowledge of the full details
Knowledge of what is happening, so you can see if it is derailed
Program and sponsorship partnership
Program delivery capabilities
Program management
Projects, programs, construction, and delivery
Prototyping to define what is going to be delivered and boundaries
Understands complexity, interdependencies, interactions, and interrelationships
What program means and its implications
Willingness to work with transparency
Need to understand major phases and know who to ask, how to question if we are doing the right thing, satisfying requirements (and are they the right requirements), and can we afford it
Acceptance should be from executive sponsor from a business perspective
What to deliver, when and how, stay within boundaries, how to change the organization, how to make new capability part of the system
3 Leadership 21 Enabling leadership
Enabling and adaptive leadership
Enabling ability
Ability to enable
Situational leadership
Adaptive (ability to multitask)
Adaptive leadership
Administrative leadership
Letting go of subject matter expertise as too down in the details
4 Authority 15 Ability and authority to make decisions
Ability to ask tough questions
Ability to make a decision that may be difficult for others to swallow
Ability to use power
Challenge how things are done
Challenge decisions
Challenging and questioning
Eye balling and making tough calls
If the world has changed the confidence to stop the program.
Old adage: ‘it was a successful operation but the patient died’
Authority to deal with vendors
5 Team Orientation 15 Empowerment of team to voice concerns-is there a forum to do this? Need to create an environment to express views
Surround yourself with experienced people who have competencies that balance weaknesses
Program shaping
Team building and ability to shape something
Cultural norms, behavior
Business excellence model, environment scan
Team productivity
Recognition of competencies of the team
Recognition of own “buttons” and team
Team referee
Team resources
Empowerment—bring the team with you on the vision
Empowers others
Empowers others to get on with it
Relate to people with a higher level of understanding, can get to the problem, and need trust to get to the full picture
6 Stakeholder
13 Stakeholder engagement and perceptions
Stakeholder engagement and relationship management
Stakeholder expectations management
Customer interest
Gain sponsorship of the right people
Stakeholder management
Stakeholder management; external and internal controls
Understand what you are trying to do with customers and boundaries
Strategic alignment, why it is important
Relationship building and management
Relationship management
7 Change Awareness 12 Change
Awareness of change, how much change, and if it is likely to be disruptive
Facilitation of change
Implementation of change
Change management
Need to have competencies in IT, programs, projects, and change and business
Organizational change
8 Strategic Thinking 12 Strategic thinking
Ability to see downstream
Competitive advantage
Disruptive thinking
Holistic thinking
Need to understand strategic alignment, why important, and what changes will implicate strategic service
9 Effective
11 Communication
Communication channels
Communication linkages
Understand where to plant seeds
10 Marketing 10 Marketing (as they need to take the business case and sell it to others)
Selling (30-second elevator speech, competition for objectives)
Marketing spin (excitement in communicating to get people to adopt the vision)
Marketing to sell to people
Strategic sell
11 Business Acumen 9 Business and IT understanding
Business management
Business (operationally competent)
Business skills
Business (small and medium enterprises (SME))
Business domain knowledge
Business (understanding of how business comes together)
12 Commitment 9 Commitment and engagement
Commitment level of involvement (too busy, don’t understand significance)
Need time and commitment to
Need commitment and engagement
Commitment to program and the business
13 Emotional
9 Emotional intelligence
Ability to read emotion
Emotional intelligence and objectivity
Self awareness
How to enact role
14 Influence 8 Influence
Need to have influence in the organization
Organizational influence (to be able to make this happen)
Sphere of influence
Position of influence
15 Outcome Focus 8 Outcome focused
Outcome focused, not just outputs
Understand what you are trying to achieve and the tools
Understanding of outcome and benefits
Outcomes that are achieved vs. outputs that are produced
16 Financial Acumen 7 Funding
Financial governance
Person prepared to take money out of discretionary spending
Investment and return on investment
17 Conflict
6 Clearing roadblocks, financial acumen, resources
Courageous conversation
Courageous leadership
Crisis management
May have to open pathways and navigate roadblocks
18 Consulting Skills 6 Person delivering the program must have consulting skills
Consulting skills to look at something from another’s point of view
Consulting soft skills
Context and context changes
How program fits into the bigger picture and the wider context
Context valued in a supportive environment
19 Contract Monitoring 6 Contract management
Need to understand technology and contractual management
Partnership with vendor
20 Ownership 5 Ownership
Ownership of outcome
21 Benefits
4 Need to understand the benefits, quantification, and the changes
Need to see the benefits and believe in them
22 Chair Experience 4 Ability to chair meetings and knowledge of how boards operate
Sponsor is the chair of the board
Meeting management chair board
23 Empathy 4 Empathy
Respect and empathy
Can connect with you
Relatedness-empathy, skin in the game, value of the program
24 Risk Orientation 4 Risk
Need an understanding of risk, the impacts to the business, and the deliverables
25 Vision 4 Vision
Create the vision
26 Experience 4 Experience
Experience and wisdom
Experience in managing projects
27 Program
3 Governance (appropriate and roles and responsibilities clear)
Politic power
Politically savvy
28 Accountability 3 Accountability and responsibility
29 Innovation 3 Innovative
Innovative – new ways of doing things to achieve vision
Provide ideas
30 Technology
3 Technology terms
Technical competencies
Technology understanding (as leave to the “experts”)
31 Drive 2 Drive
32 Ethics 2 Honesty
33 Value Focus 2 Value management
34 Intuition 1 Sixth sense for what needs to be done
35 Leaning Ability 1 Ability to learn from others


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Cecily Macdougall, CPA, MBA, Doctoral Affiliate of University of Liverpool, UK; Managing Director, Building4Business Pty. Ltd.,

Cecily Macdougall is an accomplished and innovative director specializing in strategic change; transformational change, industry reform, organizational and cultural change, business processes, information technology (IT) change, business and IT program delivery (strategic IT solutions), and IT governance and sponsorship.

Her passion is establishing, planning, and delivering successful change programs that implement strategic initiatives; build new capabilities, products, or services; increase an organization’s performance; and produce significant outcomes with sustainable results in difficult, risk-laden, and complex environments.

Ms. Macdougall is a key thought leader and was part of the Australian working party for the International Standard ISO21500 on project, program, and portfolio Management. She is an Honorary Fellow at Deakin University in Australia and is on the Deakin IT Advisory Board. She has an MBA with majors in International Business, Strategic HR, and Professional Accounting. She is also a qualified Certified Practicing Accountant (CPA).

©2014 Project Management Institute Research and Education Conference



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