Exploring the role of the project sponsor

Les Labuschagne, Head of Department, Department of Business Information Technology (BIT),
University of Johannesburg, South Africa
Terry Cooke-Davies, Human Systems International Limited
Lynn Crawford, ESC Lille, France and University of Technology, Sydney, Australia
J. Brian Hobbs, University of Quebec at Montreal, Canada
Kaye Remington, University of Technology, Sydney, Australia

Abstract

This article reports on an international research project exploring the role of the Executive Sponsor that was initiated and is sponsored by the Project Management Institute (PMI®).

The main goal of this article is to explore the role of the project sponsor and to report on some preliminary findings. The article starts with an overview of the need for an executive project sponsor followed by an explanation of this pivotal role. A sponsor framework, based on the dimensions of a sponsor, is applied to the interview results to assist with the interpretation thereof. The results are then compared to a list of sponsor attributes after which some further attributes are discussed.

The article shows that there is a lack of understanding and agreement as to the exact nature and responsibilities of the project sponsor. Without a clear understanding of this role, it is impossible to speculate on the impact effective sponsorship has on the success of a project.

Introduction

There are numerous references to the project sponsor in the guide to A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) (PMI, 2004). Despite this, very little literature exists on the role and responsibilities of this individual. At the same time, research confirming the importance of the project sponsor in achieving project success is limited at present. The PMI initiated and funded a research project to investigate current practices across four countries namely Australia, Canada, United Kingdom and South Africa.

Five initial studies (Cooke-Davies, Crawford, Hobbs, Labuschagne, & Remington, 2006) have been undertaken to better understand the following:

  • The importance of executive level support in the successful delivery of projects;
  • The link the executive sponsor provides between corporate strategy and its delivery through projects;
  • The form of the executive sponsor function in corporate and project governance frameworks of the organization;
  • The impact that attitude, behavior and level of commitment of the individual performing it has on the effective performance of the role;
  • The contribution that the dynamics of the relationships between the corporate executive, executive sponsor and program / project manager(s) make in the successful delivery of projects;
  • The influence that understanding the sponsor role has on the dynamics of managing projects ;
  • The influence that organizational context has on the definition of the executive sponsor role within the governance of project management.

Following on from these initial studies, structured interviews are being conducted in different organizations in the targeted countries. For each organization, two successful and two challenged or failed projects are selected. Interviews for two organizations have already been completed and are reported on in this article.

Organization A is a multi-national bank that provides a complete set of financial products to private and corporate customers. The organization has a centralised project office that performs a portfolio management function. Project governance is practiced and well-defined policies and procedures exist for this purpose. The financial services industry in which this organisation operates is well-developed and very competitive. Banks need to be very innovative in constantly developing new products and services to remain competitive. Due to the multi-national nature of the bank, different corporate governance legislation and best practices apply.

Organization B is a multi-national medical insurance company that also started offering limited financial services to its members. This organisation does not have a centralised project office. Projects are loosely coordinated as programmes within specific departments or business units. There is no formal project governance structure in place although it is practiced informally by the different programme managers. The nature of the organisation means it is governed by 17 different, often contradictory sets of legislation. The organization is very dynamic and changes its product offering, services and organizational structures regularly. Both the internal and external environments are very volatile with small windows of opportunity.

Interviews were conducted with both the project sponsor and project manager for each of the eight projects. As this is still a very small sample, no definitive conclusions can be made. It can, however, provide a better understanding of the issues involved. The main goal of this article is to explore the role of the project sponsor and to report on some preliminary findings. The objectives for this article are to:

  • describe the role of the project sponsor and its influence on project success,
  • present and illustrate a framework to better understand the role of the sponsor,
  • describe the characteristics, competences, attitudes and behaviours that distinguish high-performance project sponsors from their less well performing peers.

The article begins with an overview of the need for an executive project sponsor followed by an explanation of the structure of this pivotal role. The next section focuses on the pivotal role itself by reporting on some of the preliminary research findings. A framework is used to analyze the different dimensions of the role. After this, the attributes of an effective sponsor are compared to the interview results and additional attributes are defined. The article ends with a conclusion drawn from the interviews conducted so far.

Why a model of the executive project sponsor role is needed

The role of the sponsor extends beyond that of the project manager. From the surveys conducted, it became apparent that this role is poorly defined and that different interpretations exist even within the same organization. Several responsibilities are also associated with this role.

The first is that of project owner. The project owner is responsible for identifying the need for a project and developing and presenting the business case. This was true for the majority of projects in organization A where the sponsorship role was split in two. The Initiating Sponsor was responsible for identifying and selling the project to the portfolio steering committee. This role is usually taken on by a senior manager or director within the organization. Once financing for the project is obtained, the sponsor responsibility is delegated to a middle level manager. This person is called the Sustaining Sponsor and is responsible for representing the Initiating sponsor on the project and working with the project manager. This is the person who must take ownership of the project once finished and who will use the deliverable that emerges from the project.

The second is that of financier of the project. This project sponsor approves and administers the budget for the project. In organization B, enterprise projects are funded from a central fund. This fund is administered by the chief financial officer (CFO). The project owner would seek funding from the CFO and would need to report back to this individual on the financial performance of the project. The CFO, therefore, becomes the project sponsor / financier while the owner would typically be a line manager or business unit manager.

The third role is that of project champion. In this role the sponsor is responsible for creating the environment in which the project and project manager will operate and includes the infrastructure and political environment. The sponsor enables the project to be completed successfully. This is the case in organization B where an enterprise-wide project was undertaken to become compliant with all relevant legislation. In this case, the compliance officer who reported directly to the chief executive officer (CEO) was put in the role of sponsor for the project. The compliance officer, however, felt that she acted in an advisory / consultative role only and did not finance nor take ownership of the project deliverable. She felt the CEO was the sponsor for the project yet she liaised with the project manager on behalf of the CEO. The ambiguity of the role and responsibilities led to limited buy-in from the organization as the CEO did not champion the project. The compliance officer did not have the authority or political clout to sell the project to the rest of the organization.

From the initial interviews, it became evident that the role of the sponsor is still poorly defined and has many different interpretations. Furthermore, the role of the sponsor evolves according to the project life-cycle. In organization A there was a minimum of two formal sponsors for each project. In some instances, especially on IT projects, the technical leader who provides the requirements for the business unit is also considered a sponsor. The Initiation Sponsor is responsible for the business case and securing approval of the project. Once the project is initiated, project sponsorship is delegated to a Sustaining Sponsor who liaises with the project manager and reports to the project steering committee. On one of the projects in organization A, the role of the sponsor changed to become more of a specialist business analyst than a sponsor. This role involved business analysis and change management, in other words, was more process focused.

It is evident from the above that the role is not yet clearly demarcated and that the role is often defined based on the characteristics of the project and the organization. To assist in clarifying the role, the next section uses a sponsor framework to deconstruct the role into three dimensions. These dimensions are based on the different relationships the sponsor has with others.

Pivotal role of project sponsor

The project sponsor often serves as the liaison between the project and the organisation. The sponsor has different responsibilities towards different stakeholders during different phases of the project life-cycle. These responsibilities are what ultimately determine the attributes required by the individual who will act in this role. In exhibit 1 below, an adapted framework (Lechtman, 2005) for describing and analysing the pivotal role with 360 degree relationships, is illustrated.

Framework of project sponsor relationships

Exhibit 1 - Framework of project sponsor relationships

From the above exhibit it is clear that there are four main sets of relationships, namely vertical-up, horizontal internal, horizontal external and vertical-down. Following is a brief discussion of each.

The vertical-up relationship as shown in exhibit 2 below relates to the senior managers, directors and executives.

The vertical-up relationship

Exhibit 2 - The vertical-up relationship

In organization A, a formal project governance structure exists in their group project office. This office is the responsibility of one of the directors. The group chief information officer (CIO) is the chairperson of the project governance committee (PGC) and a member of the group executive committee (GEC).

In organization B there was no centralized project management office or formal project governance structure. Line managers were responsible for all projects within their business units and took on the role of sponsor for all of these. There is no formal structure to deal with enterprise-wide projects. These are approached in different ways based on the nature of the project.

The following paragraph contains the summarized results from the interviews conducted with the project sponsors and managers in these organizations on what the role of the project sponsor is.

The sponsor is mainly responsible for re-defining the existing way of doing business through innovation and new ideas and is, therefore, the idea originator. This is followed by selling the idea or project to the decision-making body and obtaining the necessary funding for it. The sponsor should define a clear strategy for where the project should be going that represents the business and its requirements and what benefits are to be realised. These should be clearly defined and communicated to the project manager and project team. The sponsor is also responsible for ensuring the requirements are met and the benefits are achieved at the end of project. The project sponsor should understand the greater impact the project will have on the organisation now and in the future.

Another responsibility is in ensuring that governance is maintained on the project through representing the project in governance structures within the organization. This means taking full accountability, responsibility and ownership of the project, ensuring that it is correctly resourced with the right people, that it is funded properly and enjoys the correct priorities.

On a more political level, the sponsor is expected to resolve any senior management conflict there might be that could hamper the progress of the project.

The above can be summarised as three main responsibilities namely aligning the project with strategic objectives, ensuring good governance and managing the relationship with senior management.

The horizontal relationship as shown in exhibit 3 below relates to the different internal stakeholders and business unit managers as well as external relationships with vendors, suppliers and partners.

The horizontal relationship

Exhibit 3 - The horizontal relationship

From the internal relationship viewpoint there is an expectation that the sponsor should understand what is expected from the project from a business perspective. The sponsor should ensure buy-in and cooperation from peers and all other stakeholders. Maintaining a good relationship with peers and stakeholders will assist with removing any obstacles that requires hierarchical power. The sponsor should further make timely key business decisions when necessary and take ownership of the project once it is finished.

From the external relationship viewpoint, the sponsor should liaise with and acquire support from all third party suppliers and vendors and ensure that all deliverables are appropriate. The sponsor should also ensure that the requirements of external partners, such as a holding company, are addressed through the project.

The above can be summarized into two main responsibilities namely to build and maintain relationship with internal and external stakeholders, to facilitate an environment and political climate that is conducive to project success.

The vertical down relationship as shown in exhibit 4 below relates to the project manager and the project team.

The vertical-down relationship

Exhibit 4 - The vertical-down relationship

The expectation from the project manager and team is that the sponsor should drive the implementation of the project and facilitate changes to the environment through supporting the change processes. The person in this role should provide leadership in the project and the business and make decisions on what is in the best interests of the organization. The sponsor should work very closely with and give direction to the project manager and team and ensure the project remains on track by maintaining discipline.

From the project team point of view, the sponsor must assemble an efficient team and be involved in the guidance, support and motivation of the team. Regular communication with the team should also take place to obtain their feedback.

There are also task-related expectations of the sponsor that include prioritising project requirements and the timely approval of changes according to the change management process. The sponsor must make decisions where they cannot be made by the team or project manager, and escalate problems that must be resolved.

Furthermore, the sponsor must collect and analyze metrics and monitor the progress of the project.

The above can be summarized into three main responsibilities namely enabling the project manager, building and maintaining a relationship with the team and managing the project on a macro level through monitoring and control.

From the above it is clear that the responsibilities of the sponsor are varied and it takes a special kind of person to suitably fulfil this role. It is, therefore, necessary to consider the attributes required of the sponsor as these will also impact the effectiveness of the person fulfilling the role.

Project sponsor attributes

Helm and Remington (Helm & Remington, 2005) analysed the results of 28 interviews to identify the key attributes of successful project sponsors. The result of this research project was a list of nine attributes listed below. In the last column an indication is given on how it relates to the sponsor framework used above.

Project sponsor attributes

Exhibit 5 – Project sponsor attributes

This shows that the majority of attributes refer to the vertical-up relationship. Only number four relates specifically to the horizontal internal relationship and there are none that specifically refer to the horizontal external relationships. Because the attributes listed above are based on actual interviews, it is clear that organizations have a limited understanding of the role of the project sponsor.

One of the main conclusions from the study by Helm and Remington was that project sponsorship is a complex and poorly-understood area that could have serious implications for organizations. This finding served as the foundation for the PMI-sponsored research on project sponsorship.

In the interviews conducted by the authors of this article, all of the above attributes were referred to by interviewees. Some of the additional attributes that were reported that are not explicitly part of the above list include:

  • Willingness to drive change in the organization – Driving change is often difficult as it might lead to the sponsor becoming unpopular with peers, something which could impede future career opportunities. (vertical-up)
  • Developing a mutual trust relationship between project sponsor and project manager - A lack of trust between the project sponsor and project manager could lead to the sponsor getting too involved with the management of the project and not taking the feedback from the project manager seriously. From the project manager perspective, a lack of trust in the sponsor could lead to stress and frustration which, in turn, leads to decreased productivity. (horizontal internal)
  • Taking a holistic view of the project – Project sponsors should understand the bigger picture and the impact this project has on the rest of the organization. This also relates to linking the project to the organizational strategy and business objectives. This would greatly assist in defining realistic requirements. (vertical-up)
  • Diplomacy in dealing with peers and senior management – Politics play a major role in most large organizations. The manner in which the sponsor deals with others, especially those on the same level or above, could impact the cooperation the team is afforded at a later stage. (horizontal internal, horizontal external and vertical-up)
  • Establishing and maintaining discipline on the project – The sponsor is expected to address the dysfunctional people in the team to ensure that the team is productive. The project manager does not always have the authority or time to address dysfunctional behaviour, especially in an organization with a functional or hierarchical structure where team members all report to a different line manager. (vertical-down)
  • Making timely, informed decisions and sticking by them – While some may be unpopular, the sponsor should make decisions based on what is best for the organisation and project, and not for a particular individual. Once made, decisions should not be reversed. (all)
  • Involvement and commitment throughout the duration of the project – The sponsor should consider the project a priority throughout the project life-cycle. The effect of changing sponsors midway through the project has not yet been investigated and is, therefore, not well understood. (all)
  • Passion for the project - Unless a sponsor is passionate about the project, involvement might be insufficient. Passion for a project reflects an emotion rather than an attribute which might indicate that the sponsor framework used above is incomplete and could require another dimension that refers to the emotional maturity or EQ of the individual.

The additional attributes described above once again confirm the different interpretations and perceptions that exist for the role of the sponsor. It is also clear that the majority of attributes refer to the soft skills as opposed to the hard competencies. Again there is no specific reference to the horizontal external relationships.

Conclusion

The article starts with an overview of the work that has already been done for this research project. A short description is given of the organizations that participated in the interviews. An existing sponsor framework is applied to analyze and interpret the responses. This provides a richer picture of project sponsorship that will assist with the rest of the study. Based on the results from the interviews, a comparison is made to an existing list of sponsor attributes an a few additional ones are discussed.

The first objective of the article is to describe the role of the project sponsor and their influence on project success. The interviews demonstrate that no common understanding exists of the role and responsibilities of the sponsor which makes it impossible to determine the impact this role has on project success. What is clear is that there are at least three different interpretations of the role of sponsor. Each interpretation speaks of different responsibilities that require different attributes.

The second objective is to present and illustrate a sponsor framework to better understand the role of the sponsor. The framework is used successfully to show the different dimensions of the sponsor and how each dimension has different responsibilities associated with it. This could be used as the foundation for developing a sponsor role and responsibilities model.

The third objective is to describe the characteristics, competences, attitudes and behaviors that distinguish high-performance project sponsors from their lesser performing peers. By using an existing list of attributes, results from the interviews are compared and some additional attributes are discussed. After further analysis it is emerges that these are all soft skills. The original list and the new additions highlight the difficulties in developing a standard of practices that can be used to train project sponsors.

Further research will include conducting more interviews and comparing these with the preliminary results that have been obtained so far. This will enable comparisons based on organisation type as well as country.

Project sponsorship is not yet a well-defined role and varies significantly from one organization to another and from one project to another.

Cooke-Davies, T. J., Crawford, L., Hobbs, J. B., Labuschagne, L., & Remington, K. (2006). Exploring the role of the Executive Sponsor. Paper presented at the PMI Research Conference 2006, Montreal, Canada.

Helm, J., & Remington, K. (2005). Effective Project Sponsorship: an Evaluation of the Role of the Executive Sponsor in Complex Infrastructure Projects by Senior Project Managers. Project Management Journal, 36(3), 51.

Lechtman, E. (2005). A Holistic Framework for Successfully Sponsoring IT Projects From an IT Governance Perspective. Published Master’s dissertation, University of Johannesburg, Johannesburg.

PMI. (2004). A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) - Third Edition (3 ed.): Project Management Institute.

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI or any listed author.

© 2006, Les Labuschagne
Originally published as a part of 2006 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Seattle Washington

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