Defining effective sponsorship for complex projects


Executive summary

It is widely acknowledged that project sponsorship and the role of the Project Sponsor are amongst the most significant factors in determining the outcome of a project. For example:

  • “The success of any project largely depends on the leadership and motivation given by project sponsors”, (OGC, 2002, p. 2)
  • “Our research and experience has shown that the effectiveness of the project sponsor is the single best predictor of project success or failure”, (Thomsett, 2000, p. 1)
  • “This suggests that the abilities of project sponsors could have a significant effect on the success, or otherwise, of major construction projects”, (Hall, 2003 p. 496).

It is therefore critical that the functions and processes of sponsorship for any project are clearly defined and effectively performed.

In this paper we have focused on how project sponsorship relates to the environment and context in which the project is being progressed, and in particular on the relationship between the processes of project sponsorship and project management. Based on our experiences of complex projects across many business sectors we have created a framework of project sponsorship that consists of three components; project leadership, business ownership and project direction.

We have used this framework to organise the major functions and processes of project sponsorship and to suggest how the role of Project Sponsor, for complex projects, may be defined. As a result of our analysis it is our view that for complex projects:

  • The Project Sponsor should be responsible for providing leadership over the whole of the project lifecycle
  • Project Sponsors and Project Managers need to create clearly defined and integrated working partnerships that reflect the complexity and uncertainties of achieving the project's objectives
  • During a project's development phase the Project Manager should have the responsibility to plan, monitor and control sponsorship activities.


Definitions of project sponsorship

The role of the Project Sponsor is often defined in broad terms such as:

  • Defining business requirements;
  • Reconciling stakeholder requirements;
  • Preparing the business case;
  • Championing the project to senior executives;
  • Securing funding.

(OGC, 2004), (PMI, 2004), (Buttrick, 2003), (Scottish Executive, 2003)

This concept of the Project Sponsor relates to a more limited range of functions than we have observed actually being undertaken on complex projects, or that we believe is required for effective sponsorship. For instance, it does not link with the processes of corporate strategy out of which projects are generated, it does not cover the relationship with the operator/user and it does not suggest how the role should be integrated into the processes for managing the project.

Investigating project sponsorship

Because there is very little practical and detailed advice available to Project Sponsors involved in complex projects, we have commenced a study that is focused on defining responses to some of the key issues that exist within these current definitions of project sponsorship, such as:

  • Where accountability for project success lies;
  • The role of the Project Sponsor throughout the project's lifecycle;
  • The relationship between the Project Sponsor and the Project Manager.

This paper is an interim presentation of our findings and through it we want to:

  • Explore how the process of project sponsorship and the role of the Project Sponsor might be better defined, and
  • Encourage a debate within the project management community on project sponsorship and its relationship to project management.


Although we have used the terms Project Sponsor and project sponsorship in this paper we recognise that other terms, such as Project Client, Project Promoter, Project Champion and Senior Responsible Officer are often used in project organisations. For example, we have experienced organisations that have switched between these names during reorganisations in order to emphasise a slight change in the approach to project sponsorship by a new Director. In our view the title is not important as long as the function is well defined.

Common issues with project sponsorship

Project sponsorship in practice

Our experience of projects across a range of industries suggests that project sponsorship is not well understood. For example we have observed:

  • reluctance to take responsibility for project sponsorship by individuals and departments
  • disagreement over who the Project Sponsor is and their role relative to the Project Manager
  • sponsorship by committee that leads to project decisions being deferred or unduly influenced by political objectives
  • imbalances of power between the Project Sponsor and the Project Manager. Such an imbalance may result in, on the one hand, an over powerful Project Sponsor defining unrealistic objectives and, on the other hand, an over powerful Project Manager pursuing engineering excellence at the cost of achieving outcomes that are desired by the customer.

As a result of these issues many projects fail to achieve their objectives, or are inefficiently completed, (Kerzner, 2004, p 404-408), (Flyvbjerg, 2003, p. 138-140). This applies particularly to ‘complex’ projects that are defined as exhibiting characteristics such as changing client requirements, developing technology, remote locations, numerous interfaces, multidisciplinary project teams, and time and cost pressures (Major Projects Association, 2001, p. 1).

Fundamental issues

We also believe that there are a number of fundamental issues that often hinder the effective sponsorship of complex projects, including:

  • strategic management processes that are superficial or don't take account of the complexities and uncertainties in the project environment
  • Project Sponsors undertaking multiple roles in relation to the project without it being clear which one is being performed at any time. For example, on some projects the person with the title Project Sponsor can also be a project stakeholder, the Project Manager's line manager or can be responsible for producing some of the project deliverables
  • a lack of clarity between the Project Sponsor and the Project Manager concerning their respective roles
  • a hierarchy of, or multiple, Sponsors with unclear definitions of their respective responsibilities
  • disinterested Project Sponsors or micro-managing Project Sponsors
  • business cases that are disconnected from the development of the project solution and are not maintained over the life of the project
  • decision making and authorisation processes that are unclear or inconsistent
  • powerful and influential stakeholders who are not sufficiently engaged in the project
  • the lack of a senior manager who has the authority and courage to terminate, or redefine, a poorly performing project.

To tackle these issues we consider that a more effective model of project sponsorship is needed to enable projects to be more certain of delivering their intended benefits.

A framework for effective project sponsorship

Perspectives of project sponsorship

Project sponsorship can be viewed from a number of different perspectives, including:

  • a decision making and control perspective that focuses on governance structures
  • a requirements perspective that focuses on the hierarchy of documentation linking the definition of business needs to the definition of project objectives
  • a systems perspective that views organisations and projects as complex networks of relationships and processes.

Our approach in this paper is to consider project sponsorship from the third of these - a systems perspective. It focuses on how project sponsorship relates to the environment and context in which the project is being progressed, and in particular on the relationship between the processes of project sponsorship and those of project management.

Principles for developing a solution

The development of our proposals for more effective project sponsorship is based on a set of principles that, as management consultants, we follow in advising project clients. These are:

  • Project sponsorship should be a process that facilitates the achievement of an organisation's strategic objectives.
  • Complex projects generally exist within intricate and unstable corporate, management and regulatory systems.
  • Project life cycle processes, as advocated in ISO/IEC 15288 (2002), can be iterative, flexible, and scaleable.
  • Managing complex projects requires a flexible, adaptive, and responsive approach that recognises the difficulties of predicting cause and effect in social systems. This is what Dörner (1996, p. 192) refers to as Operative Intelligence; where in some situations it is necessary to undertake careful definition and analysis before acting, while in other situations it may be more appropriate to proceed from a rough outline.
  • Organisations are structured and operate in many different ways, and if new ideas for more effective project sponsorship are to be accepted, they should be consistent with an organisation's characteristics and culture rather than proposing unrealistic wholesale change.

Project sponsorship components

We propose, in the model that we have developed, that project sponsorship should be treated as consisting of three distinct components:

  • Project leadership
  • Business ownership
  • Project direction.

The relationship between these components and the Corporate Management, User/Operator and Project Manager/Project Team functions are shown in Exhibit 1.

The components of project sponsorship

Exhibit 1 – The components of project sponsorship

The following sections outline the main responsibilities and processes of each of these components.

Project leadership component

The project leadership component is largely about strategic decision making that establishes the overall framework and direction of the project. “Leaders need to help others to define problems and opportunities, and to frame questions across rather than within organisational boundaries. They need to be able to assist people to feel and make sense of external pressures.” (Attwood, 2003, p. 59)

The project leadership component includes:

  • linking the vision of the organisation's future to the creation of a project. The output of this process should be a description of the benefits or value that the project should deliver
  • monitoring the environment outside the project system for risks that could threaten the project's objectives or opportunities that could be exploited to increase certainty
  • using influence, power and authority to facilitate the resolution of strategic issues and risks that the Project Manager is unable to control or mitigate. This may include removing obstacles to progress, obtaining scarce resources (such as technical specialists from other departments), managing senior internal and external stakeholders, and obtaining sufficient funding, (BS 6079:3, 2000, p 5)
  • providing assurance to the executive levels of the organisation concerning the progress of the project and the level of certainty that it will achieve its business objectives
  • ensuring that the project is integrated, where appropriate, into a programme or portfolio and that the interfaces and interdependencies that this generates are managed
  • defining the expected values and behaviours that should guide the management of the project.

We have often observed that project leadership is undertaken by a committee and not by a single individual. Whilst committee led project sponsorship may help to build consensus around decisions jointly made by key stakeholders, it also risks delaying a project if the decision making becomes embroiled in politics. These tensions are a normal facet of the way many large organisations operate and the project leadership component needs to accept this, and resolve it through processes of compromise and diplomacy.

The project leadership component can be summarised as having a person or people who are visibly seen to be champions of the project, and who are prepared to stand up and defend the project if necessary. The key to successful project leadership within project sponsorship is that it should take a broad, holistic view of the scope of the project – the boundaries that it considers the project has are likely to be wider than those applied by the Project Manager – and it should continue throughout the whole duration of the project lifecycle – it is just as important for prominent project leadership to be exercised during implementation and hand-over as it is during initiation and development.

There is one further element of the project leadership component that should be considered. This is having the authority and inclination to terminate a project if it no longer makes business sense. Royer (2003) has advocated introducing a separate role of ‘Exit Champion’ to act as a counter balance to the ‘Project Champion’. Whether this is created as a role that sits outside the Project Sponsor's responsibilities, or is integrated into it should depend on the experience and objectiveness of the person/people with the project leadership responsibility.

Business ownership component

The second component of project sponsorship relates to the need that Morris (1994, p. 251) defines as “striking the right balance between the owner, in his capacity of sponsor and operator, and the project implementation specialists.” This includes:

  • establishing the reason for undertaking the project in terms of an operational problem, a need for change or a business opportunity that the User or Operator has identified
  • creating a vision of what the business will look like once the project is completed
  • accepting the completed asset into operation
  • monitoring and evaluating the business benefits in the post-project phase.

The most significant point about this component is that on complex projects it is likely that the reasons for undertaking the project and the business vision can only be expressed in uncertain terms at the commencement of the project's lifecycle. The business ownership component is therefore often incrementally defined through iterative processes together with the development of the project's scope and the development of the project's business case.

Project direction component

The project direction component “is accountable for directing a project to ensure that the business objectives are met and benefits realized” (Buttrick, 2003, p. 6), it includes:

  • Creating the business case and maintaining it over the life of the project;
  • Defining the performance specification or functional objectives and undertaking change control over them throughout the life of the project;
  • Managing the authorisation and consents processes;
  • Being accountable for the overall project budget within the organisation's financial management processes;
  • Appraising, challenging and accepting options that have been defined by the Project Manager;
  • Undertaking progress and quality assurance reviews;
  • Consulting, and negotiating compromises, with stakeholders;
  • Resolving issues, risks and conflicts where the Project Manager has insufficient authority
  • Providing motivation to the project team in times of crisis;
  • Ensuring that learning from the project occurs and is embedded into the organisation.

On complex projects the creation of the business case and the performance specification often requires the support of technical resources such as economists, business analysts and other specialists. Because the nature of this work has specific objectives, scope of work and deliverables to be achieved, it should be undertaken using a structured project management approach.

The role of Project Sponsor

For project sponsorship to be effective it is important that responsibility for each of the components is assigned to a person who has the appropriate experience, knowledge and skills. The project leadership component should be undertaken by a senior manager (preferably an executive) who can command respect at high levels across the organisation. For the project ownership component it is essential to have a good knowledge and understanding of the business. The project direction component requires a person who can translate business requirements into project objectives and is experienced in, or at least understands, project management.

Just as importantly, these people must be able to see the project from a broader systems perspective – that is being able to understand that the project is part of a complex network of relationships and competing objectives both within and outside the organisation. On complex projects the risks of failure are mainly located in dependencies and incompatibilities between these relationships. The mitigation of these risks requires Project Sponsors to take a ‘whole systems’ view, that emphasises the need to consider change in terms of an inclusive process of leadership, stakeholder engagement, solution development and change implementation (Attwood, 2003).

Although the three components of project sponsorship are traditionally combined into a single Project Sponsor role, we do not consider that this is essential. Successful project sponsorship requires people with the appropriate decision making authority, and who are willing to be responsible and accountable for undertaking the functions and processes within each project sponsorship component. It is our experience that it is rare for one person to be capable of satisfying these criteria. For example, in many organisations a senior executive, who would be appropriate to perform the project leadership component, is unlikely to have the time, let alone the skills, to undertake the other two project sponsorship components.

Splitting the project sponsorship amongst a number of people obviously brings with it its own risks, such as those related to communication and politics. It may also be further complicated if the title Project Sponsor is applied to one of the project sponsorship components, which may lead to incorrect assumptions by stakeholders that a single Project Sponsor model is being adopted. However, these risks should be manageable provided that the roles and responsibilities are clearly defined and documented, and supported by the appropriate project governance functions.

We recognise that this model of multiple sponsors is innovative and we intend to explore it further in our future investigations into project sponsorship.

The Project Sponsor – Project Manager relationship

Throughout the lifecycle of complex projects the relationship between the Project Sponsor and the Project Manager is key. Ambiguities in the definition of this relationship are the root cause of many uncertainties and risks in undertaking complex projects.

In our experience the project management guidelines of many organisations give the impression that the contribution of the Project Sponsor ends, or at least significantly diminishes, at quite an early stage in the lifecycle of a project. There is generally a milestone where the Project Sponsor is expected to hand-over a requirements specification to the Project Manager, who is then seen as taking responsibility for managing the development and implementation of an asset, which, on completion, is handed-over to a user. In this model the Project Sponsor's role, during these latter phases of the project, is not seen as significant.

However, this model often does not work in practice, as during the development of the project solution it is often the case that significant uncertainties remain in the definition of the business, performance and operational requirements. This is an inevitable consequence of the interdependencies that generally exist between a business's economic and funding constraints and the definition of the project's solution.

To mitigate the inherent time and cost risks that result from this we suggest that the definition of the vision, the definition of the business case and the development of the project solution should follow parallel, iterative, and integrated processes. As a consequence, during the development phase of a project, the business ownership, and project direction components of project sponsorship should be treated as part of the Project Manager's responsibilities for planning, monitoring, and controlling the project.

However, during the latter stages of development and during implementation, the focus of project sponsorship should move to one of assurance and challenge over progress and quality, and the application of change control processes over performance or functional requirements. This requires project sponsorship to take a more independent position in relation to the Project Manager's control over the project.

Exhibit 2 provides a model of the relationship between the Project Sponsor(s) and Project Manager over the lifecycle of a typical project.

The relationship between project sponsorship and project management

Exhibit 2 – The relationship between project sponsorship and project management


In this paper we have described some of the issues that we have experienced with project sponsorship of complex projects, and have identified that there is a lack of practical guidance for Project Sponsors to follow.

We have provided a framework of three project sponsorship components; project leadership, project ownership and project direction, and have defined the main functions and processes that fall within them. Of these we have suggested that the project leadership component should take a broad, holistic view of the scope of the project that should continue for the full duration of the project.

We have also suggested that project sponsorship does not necessarily have to be undertaken by a single Project Sponsor provided that the components are assigned to individuals with the appropriate experience, knowledge and skills.

Finally, we have focused on the importance of the relationship between the Project Sponsor and the Project Manager and, because the definition of the project's vision and business case is an iterative process, we have recommended that the management of these activities should fall within the scope of the Project Manager's responsibilities.


Attwood, M., Pedler, M., Pritchard, S. & Wilkinson, D. (2003). Leading Change: A guide to whole systems working. Bristol UK: The Policy Press

Buttrick, R. (2003). The role of the executive project sponsor. Harlow UK: Financial Times Prentice Hall

BS 6079:3 (2000). Project Management – Part 3: Guide to the management of business related project risk. London UK: British Standards Institution

Dörner, D. (1996). The logic of failure: Recognizing and avoiding error in complex situations. Reading, MA: Perseus Books

Flyvbjerg, B., Bruzelius, N. & Rothengatter, W. (2003). Megaprojects and risk: An anatomy of ambition, Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press

Hall, M., Holt, R. & Purchase, D. (2003). Project sponsors under New Public Management: lessons from the frontline. International Journal of Project Management 21, 495-502

ISO/IEC 15288. (2002). Systems engineering – System life cycle processes. Geneva, Switzerland: International Organization for Standardization

Kerzner, H. (2004). Advanced project management: Best practices on implementation, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons

Major Projects Association. (2001). Effective teams for complex orojects. Retrieved 11/2/05 from

Morris, P. (1994). The management of projects, London UK: Thomas Telford

Office of Government Commerce. (2002). Project sponsor support. Retrieved 11/2/05 from

Office of Government Commerce. (2004). Successful delivery toolkit: Project sponsor/project director. Retrieved 11/2/05 from

Project Management Institute. (2004). A guide to the project management body of knowledge (PMBOK®) (3rd ed.). Newtown Square, PA: Project Management Institute.

Royer, I. (2003, February). Why Bad Projects Are So Hard to Kill. Harvard Business Review, 81(2), 48-56

Scottish Executive. (2003, April). Scottish public finance manual: Major investment: Annex 2. Retrieved 11/2/05 from

Thomsett, R. (2000). Getting the sponsor you need. Retrieved 11/2/05 from

© 2005, Ian Sutherland
Originally published as a part of 2005 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Edinburgh, Scotland



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