This paper represents a unique and important area that is mostly underserved, and addresses the areas that senior management needs to focus on in order to promote a culture of project management excellence in their organization. It also covers specific activities they should be doing as sponsors of a project, specific things they should look for in projects they are sponsoring, and specific questions they should be asking of project managers and teams throughout the project lifecycle.
We do not expect project managers to understand everything there is to know about project management just because we give them the title of project manager—so why do we expect senior managers to automatically understand what is involved in sponsoring projects?
Projects are the means by which organizations achieve goals and satisfy client needs, and successful implementation of projects is critical to an organization's performance and overall profitability. Senior management must have an understanding of project management skills and the ability to integrate a sound project management culture. To get the full value of project management tools and methodologies, most organizations have to undergo a culture shift regarding how they deal with issues such as project prioritization, risk, contingency, communication, and stakeholder involvement. Culture shifts within an organization are most successful when driven from the top—that is from senior management acting as the sponsors of corporate projects.
Project success is a team effort, and when the project sponsorship role is better understood, the whole team benefits. This is not a portfolio management paper; while it addresses some aspects of portfolio management; it focuses on streamlining the working relations between the project manager and the sponsor, so both “speak” the same language.
Perhaps the value of this paper can be summed up best by a member of senior management of a large company who, after being exposed to the concepts presented in this paper, made the following statement: “I now understand that a project I recently sponsored was not nearly as successful as it could have been—partly due to my not having understood my role as sponsor.”
This paper caters to project managers who need to “manage up” in order to bring their sponsor up to speed with relevant knowledge and skills, and to senior managers in their role as project sponsors.
The Role of the Sponsor in Project Success
The project sponsor is an individual (often a manager or executive) with overall accountability for the project. He or she is primarily concerned with ensuring that the project delivers the agreed upon business benefits and acts as the representative of the organization, playing a vital leadership role through a series of areas:
- Provides business context, expertise, and guidance to the project manager and the team;
- Champions the project, including “selling” and marketing it throughout the organization to ensure capacity, funding, and priority for the project;
- Acts as an escalation point for decisions and issues that are beyond the authority of the project manager;
- Acts as an additional line of communication and observation with team members, customers, and other stakeholders; and
- Acts as the link between the project, the business community, and strategic level decision-making groups.
The Responsibilities of the Project Sponsor
A project sponsor is typically responsible for initiating, ensuring, approving, and establishing a series of key aspects in relation to the project, which can be summed up under categories of vision, governance, and value/benefits realization. Note that the categories are not mutually exclusive and most of the items can appear under more than one category (e.g., approving deliverables can be placed under each of the three categories):
- Ensure the validity of the business case and the viability of the business proposition,
- Ensure ongoing alignment to business objectives,
- Informally interact with the project team and other key stakeholders to stay informed of trends and events within the project (and ensure the project remains viable), and
- Define project success criteria that align with the business objectives.
- Prioritize the initiative and ensure it is launched and initiated properly,
- Serve as a voice for the project and ensure appropriate organizational priority is given to it throughout,
- Assemble and provide on-going support for the project organization,
- Identify roles and reporting structure,
- Serve as an escalation point for issues and other matters and obstacles that are beyond the control of the project manager, and
- Provide financial resources for the project and approval on go/no go decisions regarding progress and phases.
Value and Benefits
- Ensure risks and changes are managed properly and sufficiently and make associated decisions;
- Ensure control mechanisms and reviews are in place;
- Ensure the project delivers the intended value;
- Evaluate progress and status;
- Approve deliverables;
- Make go/no go decisions; and
- Be responsible for the overall quality, value, and benefits for the project, from process to the end product.
The sponsor is also responsible for recognizing, addressing (proactively or reactively), and initiating appropriate action if and when business conditions and circumstances significantly change throughout the lifecycle of the project, so the project can remain viable and the project manager can continue to carry out the job of leading the project.
So, Where is the Sponsor?
In many projects, it appears that the sponsor is nowhere to be found (at times right from the start, or at some point in the project). In other situations, the project manager does not even know who the sponsor is, or what the project success criteria is. This is most often due to a misunderstanding by the project manager, and even the sponsors themselves, of what the project sponsorship role is about. Organizations are often reluctant to delegate project sponsorship and may keep it at the steering committee level. Project managers are often appointed to their role with no view of business objectives–—trying to complete the project with success criteria that are focused only on time and money. In addition, many project managers prefer that sponsors remain out of their way and do not interfere, or that the sponsor functions as a senior project manager for some project matters. Many sponsors are too busy to attend to their projects’ details, treating the projects as a hands-off mission that is in the hands of the project manager, and doing so without clarifying business objectives or properly empowering the project manager for the tasks on hand.
Build Effective Sponsor-Project Manager Relations—Without a Project Sponsorship Institute (PSI)
The sponsor and the project manager depend on each other for the success (Bergman et al., 2001) of the project and the project's ability to deliver the intended benefits and the business needs. They must trust in each other and meet regularly despite their busy schedules, and they need to define rules of engagement and define roles and responsibilities and expectations from one another early on. Unfortunately, despite the importance of project sponsorship, unlike project management, there are no organizations, methodologies, and approaches that exist for project sponsorship. In the absence of a project sponsorship institute (PSI) to establish guidelines and encourage education and qualification of project sponsors, there is a growing need to address it from the project needs’ and the project manager's point of view.
The prevailing expectation from project sponsors is that they understand the organization's business and the corporate strategy very well. We also expect them to have good—or rather, workable—relationships with other members of senior management, with the board, with other departments, and with the relevant external stakeholders. In addition, we expect them to have sound knowledge of the business case and an understanding of project management practices. With that said, these expectations are more in the level of assumptions and, in turn, they are often not realistic. There is also very limited literature about project sponsorship and little attention and guidelines as to what good project sponsorship entails.
As organizations progressively rely on project management for growth and survival, there is a growing need to ensure that projects add the intended value and align with the business objectives. However, the growing focus on project management requires an increase in the awareness and quality of project sponsorship to help project sponsors understand and fulfill their role, help project managers work with sponsors, and help both roles work effectively with each other.
In order to enhance the collaboration between the two roles—and with it, the quality and success of projects—we need to be able to articulate what the project sponsor needs to ask of the project manager in order to get a good sense of how the project is progressing, what to look for as evidence of a well-planned and managed project, and what to do as project sponsor in order to foster a culture of project success. These are tangible items that go beyond the above-mentioned description of the role of the project sponsor. Further, we also need to identify means for the project manager to communicate effectively with the sponsor and clearly define the touchpoints between the two roles.
Each of the following sections covers the highlights of what the project sponsor needs to do, look for, and ask about, based on the project lifecycle:
Things for the Sponsor to Do
There are specific things the sponsor should do throughout the lifecycle of the project; from setting up the foundation for the project during initiation, allowing sufficient time for planning, serving as an escalation point, ensuring processes are followed during the project execution, and ensuring completion and hand-off activities are in place during project closing. Exhibit 1 provides a more detailed list of things for the sponsor to do.
Things for the Sponsor to Look For
The sponsor needs to be tuned in to how the project is doing and to events that take place with the team, performance, stakeholder(s), and the organization. In initiation, the sponsor needs to make sure that the project charter sells and promotes the projects sufficiently and realistically. During planning, the sponsor needs to keep an eye on the quality of the requirements and whether the plan is realistic. During implementation, the sponsor has to check team dynamic and performance, and check that reports are produced as required and that the reports provide a realistic picture. Upon completion, the sponsor needs to look for any surprises and for opportunities to learn from the project experiences.
Exhibit 2 provides a more detailed list of things for the sponsor to look for.
Things for the Sponsor to Ask
One of the challenges of the project sponsor is to ensure—without micromanaging—that the project is being managed well and that the project organization—including the project manager—is performing as required. Out of the many questions that need to be asked as part of performing the sponsor's role effectively, this section focuses predominantly on the sponsor's questions to be directed at the project manager. However—especially as part of the initiation phase—the questions identified should be directed at other stakeholders as well, specifically at the customers, members of senior management and those who put together the business case. Throughout the subsequent stages of the project, most sponsor's questions focus on showing support, ensuring things are done right, testing the performance thresholds, and providing oversight to ensure that the project is planned/performed/controlled in line with expectations. During closing, the questions should focus on learning from the experience moving forward.
Exhibit 3 provides a more detailed list of things for the sponsor to ask.
There are additional items the sponsor needs to check with the project manager and the team members throughout the project, with no specific association with the project life cycle stage:
✓ Ensure that task level plans are in place despite not being reported on at the project level.
✓ Confirm that the planning process is iterative and that plans are progressively refined as progress is made.
✓ Check that estimates are based on valid information and verified assumptions.
✓ Resources are allocated toward all tasks (and not over-allocated).
✓ Resources are allocated at a realistic rate (i.e., not at full 40-hour week).
✓ Buffers are identified, accounted for, and managed.
✓ Contingencies are in place.
✓ Milestones are spread strategically throughout the project with measurable deliverables.
✓ Proactive assumption documentation and management is taking place.
✓ Requirements are prioritized and streamlined to project scope.
✓ Effective working relations are in place between the project manager and team members, business analysts, and resource managers.
✓ Time and ownership are allocated for reviews, walkthroughs, approvals, and sign-offs.
✓ Check if critical path is identified, whether it is realistic, and what is the percentage of activities that are on the critical path.
✓ Cross-project and within the project dependencies are managed and defined.
✓ Ask whether there are any specific areas of concern regarding task sizes, risks, or dependencies.
✓ Check that the project manager keeps up with both mandated reporting and proactive management of the project.
✓ For each phase, check the likelihood of completing the work on time/on budget/to specification.
✓ Check for organizational and cross-project factors that may impact the project.
✓ Identify activities and ideas that can help reduce risk.
✓ Track team members’ overtime and reasons for overtime.
A Checklist of Things for the Sponsor to Ask His/Herself
In addition to the list of questions for the sponsor to consider directing at the project manager and at other stakeholders, there are also questions that the sponsor should ask him/herself. These questions, in the form of a checklist, can help the sponsor understand the project objectives, alignment with goals, and level of readiness for the project:
✓ Help streamline communication and encourage quality requirements and estimates.
✓ Create a sense of trust, collaboration, and honesty.
✓ Clear role in problem escalation and resource issues.
✓ Means and sources to identify problems (i.e., schedule, cost, quality) before they are officially reported.
✓ Foster requirements and scope prioritization.
✓ Ensure timely change control and decision making; dependency identification mechanism.
✓ Allow for effective risk management process including requirements, project, and business risk considerations.
✓ Encourage record keeping and access to historical information, benchmarking, references, and application of lessons.
Touchpoints with the Project Manager
The relationship between the project sponsor and the project manager is one of the main keys for project success. Although it takes two to tango, the establishment and development of the relationship starts with the sponsor, mainly because the sponsor is the more senior of the two and, essentially, it is the sponsor who selects the project manager. Situational leadership is an important element in managing the relationship, along with expectations management, to ensure the building of trust, development of rapport, and establishment of strong and collaborative working relations and open communication. With that said, the sponsor's style and approach should depend on the type of project at hand and the challenges it poses. The challenges are a factor of the project's overall complexity, including the project size, reach, value, overall importance, and risks. Other complexity considerations include the ambitiousness of the project objectives, the stakes and pressure associated with the project, and the nature of the product/technical complexity of the project.
When considering an approach for building the relationship with the project manager, the sponsor must consider the complexity in context with the skills level and experience of the project manager. With low complexity and a strong project manager, it would be sufficient for the sponsor to apply a delegating style, toward a more hands-off approach. For higher complexity projects, the sponsor should serve a more supporting role for the experienced project manager. When dealing with project managers with less experience or those who demonstrate lower competencies, the sponsor should be more involved; ranging from providing coaching in less complex projects to a directing and hands-on role in high complexity situations.
Beyond the “traditional” boundaries between the roles of the project manager and the sponsor, it is the sponsor who needs to initiate a change in the division of work, based on the project's state and the project manager's experience and performance. At the same time, the project manager should also keep an eye on the division of work to ensure that no gaps are created and that the sponsor provides the required support for the project. It is important to note that a gap may not even need to take place between the actual roles of the project manager and the sponsors; even a gap in the perceptions of one of the two in their counterpart's role may lead to project challenges.
What the Project Manager Should Look for
Although the majority of the responsibility in building the working relations between the sponsor and the project manager lies with the sponsor, the project manager has both a high stake and an important role in it. At the most basic level, the project manager needs to understand the role of the project sponsor and, in the event the sponsor does not sufficiently perform their role, the project manager should engage the sponsor in the matter. It includes asking the sponsor about the division of work between the two, identifying and articulating the areas that need to be under the responsibility of the sponsor, and ensuring the sponsor provides sufficient support for the project manager. When the sponsor does not take ownership on building the relationship, the project manager needs to do so. Furthermore, although the project, in essence, “belongs” to the sponsor, any problems between the two may lead to performance issues and failures and the blame will most likely point at the project manager.
Besides calls for decisions, sign offs, and escalation of issues, most key questions the project manager needs to ask the sponsor should be asked during the early parts (initiation and planning) of the project and should surround the sponsor's involvement and project's purpose, clarification of priorities, definition of acceptance criteria, and escalations.
Learning About the Sponsor
When the project sponsor has a clear vision and ideas on how they want the project to be, it is generally a good thing. Sometimes, that clarity of vision may result in their becoming too adamant and rigid, which may be a sign of a very directive and hands-on style. The opposite situation, where the sponsor is very hands-off and with a loose vision, may also be dangerous as it may signal lack of focus, clarity, and, at times, commitment.
When engaging the project sponsor, the project manager needs to put together a checklist of items (Schibi et al., 2015) that can help gauge what type of sponsor the project manager has to deal with, the level of commitment the sponsor brings, and the sponsor's potential role in delivering project success. Although some of the items may be listed in the project charter, since it is the project manager who typically writes the charter, the project manager will have to gather information about these items one way or another:
✓ Project justification and strategic alignment
✓ Identify business objectives and benefits
✓ List project deliverables
✓ Organizational and political context
✓ Criteria for measuring success, trade-offs, and constraints
✓ Key stakeholders involved and impacted
✓ Prioritization criteria (cross-project and within the project)
✓ Rules of engagement, communication, and expectations from each other
✓ Issue management and escalation
✓ Risk tolerances (sponsor, customer, stakeholder, the organization)
✓ Problem/opportunity definition
✓ Critical for success items/functionality
✓ Portfolio, PMO, and other compliance information
✓ Visibility and decision-making drivers
✓ Key drivers and reasoning for timing/sense of urgency
✓ Authorities, gates, approvers, and funding allocations
✓ What if: the project fails/is delayed/over budget?
✓ Areas impacted
✓ Who signs-off on the customer's side and how do they define success?
✓ Who is threatened by the project or its outcome?
✓ What are the financials for the project (e.g., ROI, NPV, cost-benefit, payback period)?
✓ What will constitute failure?
✓ Clarity around time/money/features/quality constraints versus targets
✓ Are resources aligned?
✓ Is contingency allowed; how much; how is it determined?
✓ Change control procedures
✓ Organizational change management considerations
✓ Project reporting information and criteria
The project manager needs to develop a rapport with the sponsor and ensure that the lines of communication are open. This includes asking the sponsor (directly or indirectly) what it is that will make the sponsor happy and content with the project results, as far as project objectives and success criteria. The level of trust and openness needs to allow the project manager to challenge the sponsor's response and to further engage the sponsor in the event that the mandate is inconclusive, unclear, or unrealistic. The conversation must rely on merits and information that is supported with facts and actual conditions. Furthermore, the project manager should not accept an answer that implies that all constraints and success criteria are equally important. Basing the conversation on the project balloon theory (Schibi et al., 2013) will allow the project manager to maintain focus on what really constitutes success and distinguish between project constraints that must be met, versus targets that, if necessary, may be flexible within a specified range (specifically scope, time, cost, or quality).
Final Thoughts on the Role of Project Sponsors in Project Success
When looking for information about the role of the project sponsor, most of it includes lists of what the sponsor should do. However, it is hard to find information about what the sponsor needs to do to fulfill the sponsor's role effectively and to maximize the sponsor's contribution to project success. The sponsor's role is a difficult one: there are many pressures to contend with, especially at the higher levels of management and multiple priorities and causes compete for scarce organizational resources, capacity, funding, and focus. In addition, for promoting the project through these competitive conditions, the sponsor also has a day job and, possibly, other projects to support. Beyond ensuring the project's position on the organizational totem pole, the sponsor needs to be involved in the project to a sufficient extent based on the project's stakes, velocity, complexity, and the project's and project manager's changing needs.
Beyond the traditional definitions of the sponsor's role, this paper deals with the “how” portion of the sponsor's role, including what to look for, what to do, and what to ask—to some extent, addressing the sponsor's interactions with various team members and stakeholders, but for the most part, it covers the sponsor's interactions with the project manager. To ensure the realization of benefits in the project, the project manager, in turn, also has an important role in making the interaction with the sponsor effective and turning the interaction into trustful working relationships. Beyond the sponsor's responsibility to provide the mandate for the project, the project manager needs to ensure (to the best of his or her knowledge) that the mandate is realistic and is aligned with the organizational objectives. In the event of misalignment, the project manager should alert the sponsor, with the business analyst helping the project manager make such a call.