The new sponsor

there's a first time for everything, including project and program governance. Here are five tips for doing it right.

By David Tilk, PMP

YOU'VE FOUND YOURSELF as the sponsor of a new project—the one that's supposed to change the way your organization does business. Your business unit is going to be one of the most affected areas, so it makes sense for you to take the role. But you've never served as a project sponsor before, and so—apart from applying common sense and calling on past experience—you're not sure what to look out for.

Here are five tips for ensuring your inaugural project or program governance journey is a successful one.

In providing governance over a project or program, one of the most important questions you must answer is, “What is the organization trying to achieve?” That answer is the key to setting the vision for the overall program and to making good decisions. If you're unable to clearly articulate why a project is being undertaken and how it links back to the organization's strategic goals, then the project will likely have trouble achieving benefits.

Own the business case—including the objectives and goals of the project or program—and weigh any future decisions against them. Be sure to take time, even when deadlines are approaching, to see that the business case gets updated with any significant changes before approving them. That discipline will save you from losing focus and eroding value.


One of the most common problems I see with large change initiatives is implementation teams not taking time to set up strong governance. When you're the leader of any governance committee, the first thing to do is ensure the individual members are chosen for their experience and skills. Be sure to assess the steering committee as a whole.

This involves identifying skill gaps and ensuring the body has the right levels of seniority and accountability to be effective change agents. Identifying members who might be out of their depth and working to have adequate representation saves a lot of time in the long run and greatly enhances the chances of project support and success. The next step is to assign clearly defined roles and responsibilities to the committee members.

It's also important that the governance processes and mechanisms are in place, they make sense to you and they fit what you are trying to accomplish. This includes a regular cadence of meetings, understanding how and when the committee will receive information, and determining whether the information will have the right level of detail to help you achieve the business case. Also, documenting roles and responsibilities, structures and processes enables agreement and formal acknowledgement by the major stakeholders.


Don't allow steering committee meetings to become update sessions. A brief update is fine, but the committee's job is to ensure alignment, give guidance, monitor results, make decisions and clear roadblocks. It's your time to help tackle the tough issues that arise and help the project team stay focused and continue to execute.

It can be difficult to set the direction and pace of a meeting, so make sure you get the right level of information and keep to the right pace of the meeting. Agendas should be focused on decision making and therefore should present the specific questions to be answered by the committee. I've often seen steering committee meetings go overboard with endless discussion and lose sight of the meeting's goal, so it's important to (1) first understand and then follow the agenda of a key governance meeting, (2) set the tone, pace and purpose early in the meeting, and (3) ensure active participation by all members.



You set the vision and agenda for the program and facilitate the steering committee as a governing body. Challenge the project team to think past the upcoming week or month or phase. What are the overall goals and visions of the project? What is the total cost? Is there a bigger end goal or bigger picture? Challenging your fellow committee members with such questions ensures that a level of robust discussion is reached and a problem is attacked from all angles. Answers to those questions will, hopefully, lead to a more focused project and enable the project team to own its deliverables and execution while you focus on the greater value to be delivered.

You're there for a reason: You and your business unit will be affected by changes. So make sure you're getting value from the project.


Steering committee members must be advocates of the project for their teams. Don't underestimate the importance of that advocacy. Make sure your team is well represented for the change and will be prepared by means of an adequate organizational-change work stream. You may have to consider whether the organization's leaders need additional resources or should turn to external advisers to help drive the change within the company. Also factor in the culture of the organization, organizational readiness and ways to most effectively transition to the new way of work.

Share Your Thoughts

No one knows project management better than you, the practitioners “in the trenches.” So every month, PM Network shares your opinions on everything from sustainability to talent management, and all project topics in between. If you're interested in contributing, email [email protected].

Ensure your governance peers and leadership are on board and are sending the right messages to their own teams. Your role will be to meet with them personally and enable the organization's leaders to serve as change agents. If you find that receptivity to the change is not working, be prepared to be flexible and to change direction. And always be brave and well informed. pm

img David Tilk, PMP, is a principal in risk assurance, PwC, Cleveland, Ohio, USA.




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