Governance and support in the sponsoring of projects and programs







Several factors have combined to draw attention to the importance of sponsorship of projects and programs. One factor is that after several decades of attempting to improve success rates of projects by focusing on project-based management and the project management competence of practitioners, convincing evidence demonstrates that success or failure of projects is not entirely within the control of the project manager and project team. Contextual issues are crucial in influencing the progress and outcomes of projects and a key theme that has emerged is the importance of top management support (Baker, Murphy, & Fisher, 1988; Lechler, 1998; Zimmerer & Yasin, 1998; Lechler & Thomas, 2007).

Another factor that has drawn attention to the sponsorship role is increased focus on corporate governance, resulting from numerous high-profile corporate collapses, which has highlighted the need for accountability, transparency, and ability to implement strategy. Projects can be seen as temporary organizations, established within the framework of the permanent organization (Lundin & Söderholm, 1995; Sahlin-Andersson & Söderholm, 2002; Turner & Müller, 2003). The permanent organization is required to conform to corporate governance requirements such as those established by the Sarbanes Oxley Act, 2002 (USA) and similar regulatory instruments, of which over 35 have been issued in OECD countries since the release of the OECD “Principles of Corporate Governance” in 1999 (Gregory & Simmelkjaer, 2002). It is the responsibility of directors to ensure accountability and transparency throughout all of their operations and to provide a structure through which the objectives of the company are set, and the means of attaining those objectives and monitoring performance are determined (OECD, 2004). Visibility and control must be maintained throughout all activities of both the permanent organization or ongoing operations and the temporary organization(s) or projects and programs undertaken. While corporate governance must be consistent across the permanent organization, governance of projects and programs may vary within that framework. For instance, one project of an organization may be undertaken as a strategic alliance with another organization, or under a contract. In each case the contract will specify the specific governance arrangements for that project (Hazard & Crawford, 2004). In satisfying corporate governance requirements, management must ensure coordination between governance of the permanent and temporary organizations. The sponsorship role constitutes this point of intersection. The sponsorship role can therefore be seen as important both in terms of ensuring that governance requirements are met and in providing support to projects and programs.

In designing the research reported here, the aims were to address both formal and informal aspects of the sponsorship role and to provide guidance to organizations and professional organizations in:

  • Defining the role and responsibilities of the sponsor within corporate and project governance frameworks
  • Identifying the characteristics of effective performance of the sponsor role

Following is a review of the literature relating to the sponsorship role including its treatment in both literature and standards; an explanation of the research design and methodology; a review and analysis of results from the research and presentation; and discussion of a model to guide understanding, structuring, and conduct of the sponsorship role under differing contextual circumstances.

Sponsorship in the Literature

The following review of the literature focuses specifically on the role of the project sponsor in relation to project governance. The literature review commences with a review of the role of the project sponsor as represented in the major international project management standards. This is followed by a review of the current state of knowledge derived from the project management practice literature and research findings both from the project management academic literature and the general management literature.

Representation in International Project Management Standards

Although we recognize that a number of national and organizational standards are in use this review confines its examination to three generally accessible sources of project management standards, all of which are used internationally. The standards reviewed in this survey are those developed by the Project Management Institute (PMI), the Association for Project Management (APM) and the Office of Government Commerce (OGC), United Kingdom.

An examination of the PMI standards found that, individually and collectively, the four standards, PMBOK® Guide (PMI, 2004), OPM3® (PMI, 2003), The Standard for Program Management (PMI, 2006a) and The Standard for Portfolio Management (PMI, 2006b) do not provide a clear and consistent treatment of sponsorship as a topic. However project sponsorship is mentioned several times throughout the documents.

The PMBOK® Guide is largely written from the perspective of the project manager and the project team managing a single project. Project governance and the sponsor role are not its primary focus. The sponsor is defined as “the person or group that provided financial resources…” (Section 2.2 Project Stakeholders and glossary). However, there are a number of other references to the project sponsor role, which give an overview of this role in the context of the management of a single project, which is the stated scope of this standard. References to the project sponsor's role in this standard include the following responsibilities: issuing the project charter (Section 4.1); authority in change control (Section 4.6); formal acceptance of deliverables (Section 4.7); dictating major milestones (Section 6.5); QA support (Section 8.2); clarify funding and scope for the project team and influencing others (Chapter 9 Introduction); communicating with the project manager (Chapter 10).

OPM3 addresses organizational project management, but makes very few specific references to the project sponsor role. No specific reference to this role was found in the Knowledge Foundation, however some references were found within Appendix I, Program and Portfolio Management Process Models. These were consistent with those found in the PMBOK® Guide. The OPM3 Self-evaluation questionnaire contains one question that specifically addresses the project sponsor role, “Are the sponsor and other stakeholder(s) involved in setting a direction for the project that is in the interest of all stakeholders?” (Question #1). This question is linked to four best practices: Determine project scope; Establish strong sponsorship; Consider stakeholder interests; Select projects based on organization's best interests.

No section of The Standard for Program Management is devoted specifically to the sponsor role. The definition given above from the PMBOK® Guide is reproduced, but what could be considered to be several complementary definitions of the program sponsor are also presented. Section 17.2 describes the program sponsor role as: “The individual or group who champions the program initiative, and is responsible for providing project resources and often ultimately for delivering the benefits.” This section also defines the “program governance board” as “The group responsible for ensuring that program goals are achieved and providing support for addressing program risks and issues.” In section 2.3.1 (p. 21), the “executive sponsor” in a list of roles in program governance is followed by the statement, “Responsible for creating an environment that will ensure program success.” Note that the document alternates between the terms “program sponsor” and “executive sponsor.”

The Standard for Portfolio Management seems to take project sponsorship as a given, with neither a definition nor any substantial discussion. The most important reference to the project sponsor is found in the section on Stakeholder roles and responsibilities (section 2.2.4 Sponsors, p. 17). Other brief references to the sponsor role are made in several sections throughout the document (section 2.2.5; section 1.6; section 1.10; pages 27, 37, and 59.)

Directing Change: A guide to governance of project management, (APM, 2004) specifically identifies the project sponsorship role as one of four main components of the governance of project management and lack of clear senior management ownership and leadership as one of seven common causes of program and project failure. Project sponsorship is described as the effective link between the organization's senior executive body and the management of the project with decision making, directing, and representational accountabilities.

Other standards in general use, such as PRINCE2 (OGC, 2005), Managing Successful Programmes (OGC, 2007a) and Portfolio, Programme and Project Management Maturity Model (P3M3) (OGC, 2007b) do address the role of the sponsor under various nomenclatures by prescribing specific functions within the project governance hierarchy.

PRINCE2 distributes the responsibility for project sponsorship over three roles which are constituted as the project board. The project board comprises the customer or executive, a senior representative of the user, the senior user, and someone representing the supplier or providing specialist input, the senior supplier. The chairperson of the project board represents the customer and owns the business case (p. 311). The project board is responsible for providing the project manager with the necessary decisions for the project to proceed and to help the project manager and team overcome any obstacles.

Managing Successful Programmes clearly defines a governance structure. Sponsorship rests with a group known as the Sponsoring Group which contains the investment decision makers and includes the senior responsible owner (SRO). It may also be known as the programme board and comprises senior level sponsors of the program who provide investment decisions and top-level endorsement of the rationale and objectives for the program. There is also some reference to role behavior and it is recommended that the members of the SRO must lead by example and demonstrate commitment and direct involvement. In this model the SRO, otherwise referred to as programme director, is ultimately accountable for the success of the program.

Portfolio, Programme and Project Management Maturity Model (P3M3) is a reference guide for structured best practice. It breaks down the broad disciplines of portfolio, program and project management into a hierarchy of key process areas (KPAs). It does not have a specific KPA called ‘Governance' but the 2.2 Programme Organisation KPA states that “the Sponsoring Group for each program should ensure that the governance arrangements are appropriate.”

Representation in the Project Management Literature

Awareness about the importance of the role played by the sponsor, or representative of the organization, has been steadily gaining momentum. Originally the literature simply recognized the importance of the role itself (Baker et al., 1988; Pinto & Slevin, 1988). Research projects followed, aimed at exploring the nature of the role. In an early critical study of project management processes, Kerzner (1989) observed that during the evolutionary stages of a project executive managers may be reluctant to provide visible ongoing support until they are convinced that the system will work. Others research projects followed (Crawford & Brett, 2001; Whitten, 2002; Hall, Holt, & Purchase, 2003; Helm & Remington, 2005a, 2005b; Guldentops, 2004;Cooke-Davies, 2005; Crawford & Cooke-Davies, 2005, Weaver, 2005; Kloppenborg, Tesch, Manolis, & Heitkamp, 2006). Evidence from the academic literature has also been supported by the practice literature (Kay, 1997; Ingram, 1994; Stevens, 1998; Perkins, 2005; Melymuka, 2004a, 2004b). Nevertheless, with few exceptions (Crawford & Brett, 2001; Hall et al., 2003; Helm & Remington, 2005a; 2005b; Kloppenborg et al., 2006), very little research has examined the sponsor role in any depth.

Initial understanding of the role of the project executive sponsor as the person or group responsible for approving finance has gradually been expanded to include many other key functions which appear to be directly related to project success (Jiang, Klein, & Balloun, 1996; Lechler, 1998; Zimmerer & Yasin, 1998). Several authors emphasize the necessity for high level sponsor involvement and commitment to the project to ensure the availability of resources needed and the appropriate level of attention from senior management (Cooke-Davies, 2002; Remington & Pollack, 2002). Benjaminsen (2000) examines this idea in the context of the information technology (IT) industry, asserting that the presence of an executive sponsor is fundamental to achieving a successful project. Other writers (Paton, 1997; Slater, 1998; Jeffries & Robertson, 1999; Melymuka, 2004a;) support this based on reports from practitioners, and Smith (2003) goes so far as to argue that project success is directly related to the seniority of the sponsor within the organization. The need for effective communication, and the criticality of balancing social and procedural aspects of communication within organizations (KPMG, 1997; Miller & Hobbs, 2002) is highlighted by several studies, such as Kerzner (1994). Müller (2003) also stresses the sponsor's role as critic.

A case study in the IT industry (Muller & Turner, 2002) emphasizes the importance of “softer” skills for project sponsorship, particularly high level communication skills, a point supported by other writers (Kapur, 1999; Hartman & Ashrafi, 2002; Hall et al., 2003; Black, 2004). These authors provide some degree of insight into the role of the executive sponsor across various disciplines. Turner and Keegan (2001), in describing governance mechanisms adopted by project-based organizations, identify two essentially separate but complementary roles which they entitle steward and broker. There is some parity between the role of “broker” and that of project sponsor, in that the broker takes an entrepreneurial role associated with establishing and managing customer interfaces.

Crawford and Brett (2001), drawing on a review of the literature, a survey, and nine case studies, identify the contextual determinants of the role of the project sponsor in relationship to the nature of the organization and the project type, and identify potential aspects of the role from the perspective of project managers. Topping the list was responsibility for budget allocation, a traditional perception of the role; however in second place was political support for the project. Challenges to effective sponsorship identified in this study included recognition and definition of the sponsor role, provision of guidance and training for executive sponsors, acceptance of the role and related responsibility by the executive sponsor, and the effect of changes of executive sponsor throughout the life of the project. These findings are supported by Whitten (2002).

In the public sector, the project sponsor is described as the person responsible for representing the public client who acts as day-to-day manager of the client's interests within the project. Analysis of interviews with sponsors by Hall, Holt, and Purchase (2003 revealed the complexity of the sponsor's role. Sponsors are simultaneously involved in juggling multiple needs of stakeholders and user groups, departmental procedures, and government edicts while dealing with a legacy of mistrust and adversarial contracts. The main conclusion deriving from this research was the importance of the “softer” cultural and attitudinal issues and the need for project sponsors to develop long-term relationships with key stakeholders and acquire significant experience in their role.

Helm and Remington (2005a; 2005b) undertook an analysis of the roles and responsibilities of the project sponsor in projects from a range of industry sectors that had been identified by project owners as both complex and high-risk. Project managers and sponsors with experience in managing these kinds of projects were asked to define sponsorship characteristics that contributed to project success under these conditions. The most frequently cited characteristics required were: Appropriate seniority and power in the organization; political knowledge and savvy; ability/willingness to make project/organization connections; courage/willingness to battle with others on behalf of the project; ability to motivate the team and provide ad hoc support to the team; willingness to partner with the project team and project manager; excellent communication skills; Personal compatibility with other key players;and ability/willingness to challenge the project and provide objectivity.

Nevertheless, as Procaccino, Verner, Darter, and Amadio (2005) illustrate, in some sectors executive sponsors are not routinely identified for all projects, nor do sponsors remain engaged for the whole project. In some respects, this cavalier approach to the role of the project sponsor is reflected by Englund and Bucero (2006), who report that that 70% of sponsors interviewed in the IT sector did not possess accurate project status data and 50% of them had never visited the customer site.

In a recent study Kloppenborg et al. (2006) focused their attention on the initiating stage. They built upon earlier work which identified risk factors (Kloppenborg, Shriberg, & Venkatraman, 2003; Kloppenborg & Tesch, 2004) and, with the help of experienced project managers, linked project risk factors and success outcome measures with sponsorship behaviors. They found a significant correlation between each of six behavior factors (establishing communications and commitment, defining and aligning the project, defining performance/success, mentoring the project manager, prioritizing and selecting, and establishing project teams) with at least one of the three success outcome measures (meeting agreed requirements, customer's perception of success and the firm's future, such as market share).

Representation in the General Management Literatures

An argument for the criticality of the sponsorship role has also been gathering momentum in the general management academic literatures, particularly in relation to research and development projects, inter-organizational ventures and organizational redevelopment and change projects (see, for example, Smith, McKeon,, Hoy, Boysen, & Shechter,, 1984; Ryckman, 1987; Borys and Jemison, 1989; Barrow, 1990; Fireworker & Zirkel, 1990; Puckett & Kaczmarski, 1990; Cummings, 1991; Grover, 1993; Martin et al., 1999; Mehrotra, 2005). As early as 1988, Burbridge and Friedman argued that role specification of user and sponsor in the development and implementation of management information systems had not been sufficiently developed. Burbridge and Friedman's work is of interest because it is an early example from the literature recognizing the role of the sponsor as extending beyond traditional financial responsibilities.

McKenney, Copeland, and Mason (1995), in their book focusing on business evolution and change through information technology, identify three roles which they label the senior executive sponsor, the technological maestro, and the gifted technologist or technical team. Chakravarthy and Lorange (2007) also acknowledge the critical role of the executive sponsor, particularly with respect to business change and renewal. In a comprehensive case study of IT-mediated inter-organizational change, Volkoff, Chan, and Newson,. (1999) concluded that the absence of active senior executive sponsors, either internal or external, was a decided hindrance. Based on an analysis of inter-organizational projects involving local government and external agencies, Cairns, Wright, Van der Heijden, Bradfield, and Burt (2006) also propose the need for early critical consideration of the influencing role of the project sponsor.

Conclusion from the Literature Review

It is apparent that recognition of the importance of the sponsorship role in research literature is increasing in both the project management and general management literature. Nevertheless, until very recently, research and practice literature has confined itself to acknowledgment of the importance of the role in relation to other key roles. There is general consensus about the importance of the role; however, with the exception of the few key studies discussed above, the research literature reveals that the role is largely unexplored.


Empirical research concerning the sponsorship role has tended to rely heavily upon the opinions of project managers. There is a sound practical reason for this. Sponsors are notoriously difficult to access, either for research or for any form of training and development for the role. They usually claim that they, as members, almost by definition, of senior management in the permanent organization, are too busy to commit time to discussion or development of their competence in a sponsorship role. They are only marginally members of the project management community and see little value in contribution to research or developing skills that they perceive to be directly project-related.

The research reported here was specifically designed to take a holistic view of the sponsorship role, by examining the role in its project/program and organizational context and ensuring inclusion of views and experiences of sponsors as well as those of project managers, team members, and other stakeholders. To do this, a qualitative approach was adopted, focusing on a small number of case-study organizations and a moderate number of projects/programs, enabling researchers to gain a rich understanding of the environment in which the role of the sponsor is realized.

The research was conducted by a geographically distributed team of researchers in two phases. The first phase comprised the conduct and analysis of results from five separate research studies, undertaken by members of the research team utilizing different research methodologies (Cooke-Davies,, Crawford, Hobbs, Labuschagne, & Remington, 2006), aimed at identifying:

  1. The essential attributes contributing to effective project sponsorship
  2. The influence of executive sponsorship on project success
  3. The competencies required of project sponsors
  4. The sponsorship role in the context of corporate, program, and project governance requirements
  5. A model of factors contributing to effective performance of the sponsorship role.

The results of these independent studies, although utilizing different methodologies and perspectives, demonstrated remarkable consistency and provided a sound platform for Phase Two of the research.

The nature of Phase Two of the research, which is the focus of this paper, was both confirmatory in that data was coded using a priori codes derived from the five studies conducted in Phase One, and exploratory in that transcripts were analyzed to identify emergent themes. A qualitative approach was considered most appropriate to developing a rich and well-grounded understanding of the sponsorship role. Selection of organizations as the primary focus for data collection enabled the sponsorship role to be examined against a good understanding of context. Interviews with sponsors and key team members on nominated projects/programs allowed for inclusion of a range of perspectives on the role.

Phase Two involved nine organizations and 36 projects / programs across five geographic regions: Australia, China, Europe, North America and South Africa. Organizations in each region were selected with a view to examination of programs/projects dealing with IT-enabled change. Each organization was asked to nominate four projects or programs, two of which would ideally be considered by the organization as successful and two considered less successful. Information was gathered at organizational level concerning governance and management of projects, and then interviews were conducted with sponsors, program/project managers and other project participants concerning the evolution of the particular program or project, with particular emphasis on the role of the sponsor. Some of the 108 interviews related to more than one project, for example, where a sponsor was responsible for more than one of the projects/programs under examination. Tables 1 and 2 below provide a summary of data sources.

Table 1. Summary of data sources

  Australia China Europe North America South Africa Totals
No. of Organizations 2 2 1 2 2 9
No. of Projects/Programs 8 8 4 8 8 36
No. of Interviews 25 29 17 22 15 108

Table 2. Interview profile

Interviews Total
Sponsors 28
Program Managers 6
Project Managers 37
Team Members 28
Other 9
Total 108

Interviews were recorded, transcribed and then coded in ATLAS.ti 5.0 using codes derived from Phase One of the research. As transcripts were coded, researchers reviewed the data for emergent themes that might suggest additional codes. Ultimately it was found that the a priori codes were sufficient to capture the themes evident in the data concerning the sponsorship role. More relevant was the creation of secondary codes or code families by grouping primary or a priori codes into broader themes emerging from the data.

Most of the units of investigation included in the study were considered to be projects rather than programs (Table 3). The majority of projects/programs were in implementation or closeout phase at time of interview; a small number had recently been completed and one was an ongoing program (Table 4).

Table 3: Relative number of projects and programs and Table 4. Stage of Project / Program at time of interview

  Frequency Percent
Project 16 44
Very large project 5 14
Multi-project program 3 8
Strategic program 11 31
Operational program 1 3
Total 36 100
  Frequency Percent
Conception 1 3
Implementation 16 44
Closeout 15 42
Completed 3 8
Ongoing 1 3
Total 36 100

Participating organizations were asked to nominate two successful and two less successful projects or programs for examination. Table 5 indicates that this was largely achieved, as 16 of the projects/programs examined were considered successful and 20 projects/programs ranged from moderately successful to challenged.

Table 5. Organizational assessment of the success of the project / program

  Frequency Percent
Successful 16 45
Moderately successful 4 11
Turnaround 7 19
Challenged 9 25
Total 36 100

The following section provides an analysis of results of the research and a model for assisting in contextual understanding of the requirements of the sponsorship role.

A Conceptual Model for Making Sense of the Sponsor's Role.

Standing as he or she does with one foot in the permanent organization and the other foot in the temporary organization (the program or project), the sponsor performs a pivotal role in both influencing the success (or failure) of the project and in providing the permanent organization with a governance mechanism to oversee the temporary organization. The diversity of tasks involved in these roles is matched only by the variety of conceptual lenses through which performance of the tasks can be examined.

In seeking to make sense of not only the different discourses represented in the literature to date, but also the breadth and richness of material gathered in more than 100 hours of interviews for the particular research described in this paper, the researchers have found it necessary to develop a coherent conceptual framework through which to examine the multiplicity of individual experiences described by the interviewees. The framework must be robust enough to encompass different kinds of projects undertaken in different industries, different organizational structures, and different philosophies of management.

Whenever an interface exists, different perspectives may be obtained by looking through it from opposing directions. In this case, the act of governing the project requires that the project be looked at from the perspective of the parent organization (governance), and the act of providing top management support requires looking at the parent organization from the perspective of the project (support). In the literature, the necessity for each of these is stressed, but the two differing perspectives are not distinguished in any structured manner. The sponsor may have to provide the one, or may have to provide the other, but both are clearly present in the literature. It is possible, however, to conceive of circumstances in which either of these perspectives might exist independently of the other.

For example, a sponsor may need to emphasize a governance perspective if:

  • The parent organization has a high level of risk exposure to the consequences of failure of the project;
  • The project is persistently performing poorly against the parent organization's expectations;
  • The parent organization faces rapidly changing market conditions;
  • Corporate governance requirements (such as Sarbanes-Oxley) have drawn attention to the particular project;
  • There is suspected illegal, or non-compliant behavior on the part of the project team;
  • The project is mission-critical or has a high level of exposure;
  • There is a need to realign the project to new strategy or organizational context.

Similarly, a sponsor may need to emphasize a support perspective if:

  • The parent organization is failing to provide sufficient resources to the project;
  • Some parts of the parent organization are resisting the project's implementation;
  • Different stakeholders in the parent organization are seeking to impose on the project team conflicting definitions of its objectives or scope, or to impose untenable constraints;
  • The parent organization is failing to provide the project team with decisions that are necessary to maintaining planned progress;
  • The project manager and/or team is known to be inexperienced or weak;
  • There are early signs of difficulty with the project such as possible shortfall in benefits realization.

It is possible to locate the particular perspective required of a sponsor on a two-dimensional space, bounded by the two independent perspectives governance and support. Such a framework is illustrated in Figure 1 below. Interestingly, the need for each of the distinctive emphases is expressed by sponsors, as well as by project and program managers and their team members. More will be made of this framework when the final research is published, but for the purposes of this paper, it will be used as a preliminary “lens” through which to examine the insights from the data on the 36 projects.

Conceptual Framework for Understanding the Role of a Project Sponsor

Figure 1. Conceptual Framework for Understanding the Role of a Project Sponsor

Investigating the Research Data in the Light of the Proposed Conceptual Model

The Emphasis on Governance

Discussing the emphasis on governance, for example, sponsors commented on the role as requiring “Corporate governance, and ensuring processes are followed.” The need is governed by the circumstances, since, for example, “at times an issue can get beyond a project manager, simply because he doesn't have the clout to escalate. Then it's part of the sponsor's role to step in. … As a sponsor you have to recognize when that's happening. You need to keep an eye on what the issues are so you know when you need to intervene.” Mechanisms for doing this differ, but one sponsor commented, “I have been sponsoring a number of reviews on the program to assure its value of delivery.”

There are particular points in the life of a project or program where the emphasis on governance is particularly high. As one sponsor explained, “Sponsoring the investment proposals going forward, making sure they got signed off, they're areas I was involved in. And whenever I travel across our manufacturing sites, I take a very keen interest to see how the program is actually working or what the issues are with it.” As a result of this emphasis, “If you look at the program per se in its own right, you would have no doubt that we are addressing the right issues and the right components, and that it must deliver the benefits.”

Governance is not simply a matter of pronouncing judgment on the merits of proposals put forward by the project team. The parent organization can expect the sponsor to provide expertise from a business perspective to ensure that the proposed project or program is the one that it requires. Sponsors talk of “owning [the project] from idea to implementation and then right through to the point of realizing the business benefits.” This can require a particular emphasis when initially scoping the project and developing its strategy. Sponsors acknowledge this in terms such as, “I see the role of project sponsor as someone who has to represent the business and its requirements on a project.”

When matters go relatively smoothly, this emphasis is one that the sponsor brings to regular meetings with the project manager and core project team. The sponsor and project manager together are able to ensure that the interests of the parent organization are accommodated by the project. When that doesn't happen, however, the parent organization has to move to protect its own interests through such drastic action as calling for exceptional reviews, as a consequence of which the project might be redefined, the project manager replaced, or both. As one sponsor described such an incident, “That took us about three months to reprioritize the project, repopulate it with different staff, with a new project manager, and then to rebudget and really understand what the budget was.”

But sponsors are not alone in acknowledging the need for an emphasis on governance when circumstances dictate. Astute project managers recognize the unique value that a competent sponsor can add. “A sponsor is good because they can … ask really good, pertinent questions about key areas around, ‘Are we really going to get the benefits, I'm feeling a bit uneasy about this sort of thing.'” They are also aware of the political and cultural realities that can so easily result in projects not delivering value to the parent organization. “The sponsor needs to make sure that the business case is solid from a business point of view, that it's not being run for political reasons, to increase their span of control or importance, or, ‘I've always wanted to have one of these widgets so now I'm in a position where I can order them to build one.'” In summary, as one project manager put it, “We look to the sponsor to provide the direction, based on their business acumen.”

The Emphasis on Support

Even when projects are clearly being undertaken for the right reasons, and make strong commercial, strategic, and operational sense, parent organizations contain many powerful people who do not always see their best interests being served by supporting the project.

It is this arena, and in particular in the competition that almost always exists for scarce resources, that project managers look to sponsors for the kind of support that they need in order for the project to succeed. As one project manager explained, “a sponsor has to have the capability and the decision to influence others … in the sense of making sure that commitment required for resources and capabilities to implement, etc., is strong enough to make things actually happen. That's not just in the early days of the program but also to make sure that what we're trying to achieve is sustainable and it's not just something that disappears at the end of the project. So the project sponsor carries that role not just now, but ongoing for sustainability purposes.”

This practical influence and support needs to work in relationships with stakeholders external to the organization and throughout the parent organization. “They have to understand and work with me in my role, and to do that they have to be able to put on their company hat rather than their business area hat.” “They have to commit the time and energy of their parts of the business that need to be involved in the project. They have to be able to get involved in difficult stakeholder management issues across other parts of the business with similarly senior colleagues.”

Just as project and program managers acknowledge the emphasis on governance, however, so do effective sponsors acknowledge the need for support. Sponsors of projects adjudged by their parent organizations to be successful reflect this in their views of the sponsor's role. “You need to be able to defend the project at the higher levels within the company, especially when there are limited resources and there are other projects competing for those resources.” “The sponsor should be a guy that's taken the project to heart, really understands the project, buys into it, and gives all the support to the project team on the ground that he can.” One sponsor reported that, “I decided to take the more proactive approach with the customer and said, ‘Look, here are the things we recognize need to be done. Let's prioritize what you need and we'll work on making it happen.” Another showed support in a different way, “When we made big deadlines, we made sure that we celebrated those with the team.”

There is a substantial amount of evidence from the interviews that both the emphasis on governance and on support are recognized as being important by both sponsors and project managers. The model developed and presented here has been validated, during workshops with senior project/program managers and executives responsible for project / program management in large corporations. The reaction has been quite positive. The executives can relate to the relatively simple model, while recognizing that it captures a great deal of the complexity and variability that they observe in the exercise of this role in their organizations.

Relating Project Sponsor Roles to Mainstream Management and Leadership Literature

The sponsor role conceptualized as a pivotal role between the parent organization and the project can be seen as an example of leadership in a specific organizational context. In fact, the conceptual framework identified through this research resembles a number of theories of leadership or management that were first introduced during the 1960s. Perhaps the most familiar of these is the managerial grid (Blake & Mouton, 1982) that described managers in terms of concern for people and concern for production. According to the model, effective leaders and managers (the distinction between the two is far from clear in Blake and Mouton's work) have a high concern for both people and production. For this reason, the effective person is referred to as the “high-high leader.”

It would be wrong, however, to equate governance with concern for production or support with concern for people. The actual question of management style is, as it were, a third dimension to the grid (perhaps dealing with effectiveness of interpersonal relations) and applies equally to concerns in the permanent organization as it does to concerns between the permanent organization and the project. Yukl (2005), moreover, reports that survey research provides only limited support for the proposition that high-high leaders are universally more effective than others, but points out that research based on critical incidents and interviews “strongly suggest that effective leaders guide and facilitate the work to accomplish task objectives while at the same time maintaining co-operative relationships and teamwork.” (p. 60)

What the current research suggests is that effective sponsors are able to “guide and facilitate” (to borrow Yukl's words) the work on behalf of either the permanent organization or the project, while at the same time maintaining cooperative relationships with each of the organizations (permanent and temporary) that they are representing.

What it Takes to “Guide and Facilitate”

Sponsors and project managers alike recognize that some skills, traits, and competencies help sponsors to be more effective in their roles, regardless of the emphasis. As one sponsor remarked, “You need good communication skills in terms of working with stakeholders and doing those presentations and securing resources.”

Another attribute that is highly valued is commitment. “The most important factor for me is that the sponsor is actually passionate about getting the project done, believes it will provide benefits and will support that and champion the project and defend it in the appropriate forums.” “Ownership of the need and desire to do the work, and ensure it's successful, but also ownership of the business benefits of the project.”

Position in the organization is also important. “Seniority, a relationship with the stakeholders, and a relationship with the customer, the client, and knowledge of the project, why we're doing this, what it involves.”

But in practical terms, perhaps the most visible attribute is availability. “[The sponsor] must be accessible. It doesn't help if you have a sponsor who kind of reports to God and you never get to see them because he doesn't provide the support function and the role he's supposed to give you as the project manager.” “We've had some that just couldn't or wouldn't find the time to sponsor a project properly. So their teams couldn't get any of their time to meet with them or make decisions. They wouldn't attend steering meetings, things like that.”


The importance of the sponsor role is recognized in the literature and in the interviews, reflecting a general recognition of the importance of the role. There is, however, considerable variability among the different representations found in both the literature and in the organizations in which interviews were conducted. The role is played out quite differently in different organizational settings, on different projects and programs and by different people interacting with their contexts. A general conceptual model that captures this richness is needed. A general model could replace the partial representations reflecting only some aspects of the role or the role as it is played out in some contexts that currently dominate much of the literature and much of the organizational discourse as observed during the interviews. The model presented here is a first attempt to provide such a general conceptual model.

Project/program sponsorship is a practice that is specific to the field of project/program management. It is, however, an example of leadership, albeit in a specific organizational context. Interestingly, the literature on the project/program sponsor makes almost no reference to the general literature on leadership. This may be a reflection of the dilemma faced by the field of project/program management—if it is to exist as a field of endeavor it needs to differentiate itself from general management, but at the same time, project/program management would benefit from a better use of the vast amount of material that exists in the field of general management. Furthermore, as the field strives for recognition by those in the field of general management it must show a better grasp of the content of general management and in the process should better come to grips with the reality of project/management in general and its specific managerial roles in particular. The sponsor role may be but one example of the potential improvements in understanding.

In much of the project management literature, the project/program sponsor role has, at least until recently, largely been taken for granted. The increased interest in this role is associated, generally, with a shift from a focus on the individual project to more of a focus at the organizational level. It is also associated more specifically with an increased emphasis on corporate and project governance. As the taken-for-granted is examined more closely, as it has been during this research, the complexity and the variability of the role become more evident. And as the complexity and the variability emerge from the observations and analysis, the need for a synthesis that captures the richness of the reality while rendering it manageable become evident. This is exactly what happened during the present research project. An overview of the process and the product has been presented here. But the journey is not yet over. Analysis of the data and work on the model continue.


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