The Noah's ark: choosing the right sponsor for your project and aligning your project to the organization strategy
The history of the Noah’s Ark is the first example of project sponsorship in history. According to the Bible, Noah’s Ark was the first major engineering undertaking of humankind. If it turned out to be a big success this would mainly be due to the fact that the project was perfectly aligned with the strategy and plans of the Lord (i.e. the Sponsor). The failure of the second attempt to build a mega-project, the Tower of Babel, was probably due to the big mistakes done in building up its project sponsorship. This paper starts with analysing the historical myth described in Genesis from a project management perspective.
Choosing (when possible) the right sponsor is not an easy task for the project manager. And being the sponsor of a project does require a significant effort too. A proper communication frame between the project manager (and his team) and the Project Sponsor is a key to ensure project success.
Analysis is completed by reviewing the different nature of the manager role and the leader role with respect to the project.
Based on his long experience in program management, the author proposes his advice on how to obtain a suitable project sponsorship to make complex projects successful.
Noah’s Ark – the myth from a project management perspective
It is better to clarify from the beginning, in order to avoid any misunderstanding, that the use of the Bible’s tales at this paper is only a meant to provide some very popular and well known examples of projects and project management, without any historical or theological implication. We’ll provide therefore an interpretation of it from a project management perspective.
The history of the Noah’s ark is reported in Genesis, verses 6 to 9 (Bible Gateway, 2009). It is a very popular tale, which starts nine generations after Adam.
The Lord, being quite unsatisfied by the behaviour of human beings, decides to destroy the majority of them (Genesis 6:13 “So God said to Noah, "I am going to put an end to all people, for the earth is filled with violence because of them. I am surely going to destroy both them and the earth.”), demonstrating the ability to be ready to take even hard decisions when needed by the situation (what a decision maker!).
Now the problem was how to allow a selection of the creatures to survive the punishment, with a very little advice (he was not willing to wait further more). He needed a very talented manager to lead that project. Recognising the rectitude of Noah (Genesis 6:9 “Noah was a righteous man, blameless among the people of his time, and he walked with God.”), the Lord decided to request him to construct a big ark to allow his relatives and a selection of animals to survive.
The Lord provided him with quite clear directions, by means of a detailed Project Charter as reported in Genesis 6:14 to 6:16: “So make yourself an ark of cypress wood; make rooms in it and coat it with pitch inside and out. This is how you are to build it: The ark is to be 450 feet long, 75 feet wide and 45 feet high. Make a roof for it and finish the ark to within 18 inches of the top. Put a door in the side of the ark and make lower, middle and upper decks.” And even more (6:19 to 6:21): “You are to bring into the ark two of all living creatures, … You are to take every kind of food that is to be eaten and store it away as food for you and for them”
The more challenging requirement was about time: just one week of time before the rain was going to fall on Earth for forty consecutive days (Genesis 7:4 “For yet seven days, and I will cause it to rain upon the earth forty days and forty nights; and every living substance that I have made will I destroy from off the face of the earth.”).
Noah was clearly quite worried by this additional constraint to the execution of his project, in particular while considering he was no more a young men: he was six hundred years old at that time!
Most of us would have probably thrown in the towel. But Noah did not. He was very motivated, knowing his project was fully aligned with the strategy of the Lord. And (Genesis 6:22) “Noah did everything just as God commanded him”.
The Bible does not tell much about the management methodologies used by Noah to complete the ark manufacturing phase in such a short time, but they were, without any doubt, quite effective because this phase was completed fully in line with specifications and respecting that challenging delivery date.
But the project was not over. A new difficult phase was just starting, i.e. the deployment of the ark, supposed to survive for at least forty days in the middle of a terrific flood and then to navigate for a long time while waiting for the Earth to be dried from the flood.
So Noah entered the ark with his family and all the selected animals, with all the food already stocked in. And the flood began (Genesis 7:11 “all the springs of the great deep burst forth, and the floodgates of the heavens were opened”). And the waters flooded the earth for a hundred and fifty days (Genesis 7:24) before the Lord remembered about Noah and his crew in the ark (the project was a high priority project, but the Lord was certainly quite busy with other important tasks). But even in this occasion, Noah didn’t lose his faith. After having verified the external conditions and relying on the “progress reports” by a raven and a dove about ten and a half months since the flood has started (!!), he removed the covering of the ark (what a pleasure to breath some fresh air after such a long time spent with all sorts of animals in the ark). And more than one year since the flood started, the Earth was completely dry and the Lord authorised Noah to disembark.
The main tasks were completed, but both Noah and the Lord knew that, in order to close the project, something was still missing: celebration and distribution of recognitions were needed. So Noah built an altar to the Lord and sacrificed burnt offerings on it. And then (Genesis 9:1 to 9:3) “God blessed Noah and his sons, and said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth. […]. Every moving thing that liveth shall be meat for you; even as the green herb have I given you all things”. The project objective was quite challenging, but the reward was quite adequate. And that was the end of the project and of the biblical tale.
Noah’s ark was the first mega-projects of humankind (at least according to the Bible perspective). As we said, Noah’s ark was probably the first example of “project sponsorship” of the human history. Noah’s project was clearly aligned with the mission and objectives of the enterprise (the creation) and, in particular, of its Top Management (the Creator). Consequently, the Lord was strongly supporting his achievement, being this project essential to the achievement of his strategy.
Many generations after the construction of the Noah’s ark, the second attempt to undertake a mega-project, the Tower of Babel, to allow worshiping the stars and the Sun, was eventually very “unsuccessful”. Unlike the ark project, this new project was neither requested by the Lord, nor supported by Him, its objective being in clear contradiction with his commands (to go out and fill the whole Earth) . Lack of sponsorship was a clear consequence of lack of alignment to the enterprise strategy, and probably represents the primary reason for the project’s ultimate failure. But this is another story we treated elsewhere (Gerosa, 2008).
Do we need sponsorship for any project?
The comparison of Noah’s ark and Tower of Babel, tales from the Bible, clearly demonstrates how project sponsorship is key with respect to the successful completion of a project. Convincing evidence demonstrates, in fact, that the final outcome of most of the projects are not entirely within the control of the project manager and his team. A very interesting review of the literature is provided by Lynn Crawford (Crawford, L., Cooke-Davies, T., Hobbs, J. B.,Labuschagne, L.Remington, K., & Chen, P, 2008). A project sponsor may in fact play a fundamental role in controlling those aspects that are out of the control of the project manager.
But, do we need a sponsor for any project? Are all projects, independent of their dimension and nature, depending on executive support to the same extent? According to my experience, this is not the case. I had the opportunity to work on a wide variety of activities, ranging from small projects to large programs. In addition, over time, I managed both “external” projects (with a formal customer, external to the performing organization, requesting and funding the execution of the project by a well established and defined contract) and “internal” ones (where the role of project owner or customer is played by an entity internal to the performing organization).
When dealing with “external” projects, what is really driving the need for attention by the executive management is not the actual dimension (in terms of price) of the contract, but the influence the project could exercise on the strategic objectives of the company.
The following are examples of projects which need project sponsorship:
- a project which could lead to the acquisition (and then retention) of a new “strategic” customer (it certainly need more sponsorship focusing than a big contract with a well know and secured customer);
- a “pilot” project for the introduction of a new methodology or new tools to be extended later on (if successful) to the largest perimeter within the organization;
- a project whose technology achievements are key to the enhancement of company technical capability.
According to my experience, just a limited set of “external” projects (like the previous ones) do really need a sponsor.
On the contrary, “internal” projects (new product development aimed at preparing the company to future market challenges, “organizational change management” projects, IT projects, internal improvement plans, etc.) strongly depend on re-assessment of company strategy and/or internal reorganization processes. Some of them can be easily deleted just as a direct consequence of change in top management not sharing the same vision of the predecessors. Project sponsorship is, therefore, more crucial for internal projects in order to survive (if needed) and to modify themselves to re-align their specific objectives with the new direction given by the executive management.
The Role of the Project Sponsor
It is a common behaviour of executive management to think about their role, limited to definition and communication of the organization strategy, leaving to the middle management the execution and controlling tasks (Tharp, 2007). They consequently feel frustrated when the strategy is not translated into actions and the “expected” results do not come.
The project sponsor performs a pivotal role in providing the performing organization with a governance mechanism on the project and to keep it aligned with its strategy (which could evolve with time), and influencing the success of the project (Crawford et al, 2008).
One of the major problems in most of the company is that the project sponsor role is neither defined nor recognised in a shared perspective by all actors of the parent organization and of the project itself. As any other function inside the organization, sponsor’s role, attributes, responsibilities and authority should be clearly defined and communicated throughout the company, in order to be understood and shared by all stakeholders. People need to know what they should and should not expect from the project Sponsor. Lack of clarity on this aspect will produce future roadblocks for the project.
The sponsor’s role characteristics may vary significantly from one organization to the other, and should be defined consistent with the company overall organization (it’s actually part of the organization, not just an optional and not formalised add-on). This will be very helpful in fostering the buy-in and commitment of the project sponsor, which is a key topic we’ll see later in the paper.
In defining the project sponsor’s role, particular care shall be given to avoid any overlapping with the project manager’s role. One basic rule to be considering in doing so is that while the project manager will mainly focus on “managing” the project, the project sponsor will act much more as a “leader” towards the PM and the project team. “Over-managing” and lack of leadership and direction are the most terrible mistakes project sponsor can make. A project sponsor shall never endanger the project manager’s authority on the team, but, on the contrary, should help him as a mentor and coach. He should support the project manager in case of difficulty and conflict with the team, not replace him.
What the Project and the Performing Organization need from Project Sponsor
Let’s analyse in some more detail what is generally expected from the project sponsor. First of all, as for the project manager role, we shall consider both upward (toward performing organization executive management, as well as towards stakeholders and customer/owner of the project) and downward (toward project manager and his team, including project partners and strategic subcontractors) relationships.
- Authority and power in the organization (upward)
Project sponsor authority and effective power (both formal and personal) within the company is clearly a key aspect that the project sponsor cannot miss. What the project team expects as a project sponsor’s contribution to risk management and problem solving is the ability to get things done with the contribution of the overall organization, without being forced to perform further escalation. The project sponsor shall therefore have sufficient authority, as delegation of power, within the organization to get the needed support in a timely manner. And even in those cases where executive management authorization is required, the project sponsor shall ensure easy and rapid access to top management decision making. To do so, the project sponsor should be preferably part of the executive management itself.
Decision making skill and ability to provide clear directions are indeed other important characteristics expected from the project sponsor. As we have seen in the tale of the Noah’s ark, difficult situations do require strong decisions (e.g. to destroy mankind whose behaviour was clearly deviating from the original intention of the Lord). The sponsor should not hesitate to stop a project if this is showing early (but clear) warnings that expected results will not be met. In doing so he’s providing a benefit to the overall organization, by means of a reduction of the associated losses.
- Business vision, political awareness and customer intimacy (upward)
Ability to see the wider picture, business vision (in particular medium and long term), political awareness and ability to establish connections within and outside the organization, knowledge of organization culture and behaviour (Suda, 2007), customer knowledge and intimacy (Bucero, 2007 and Englund, 2006): they are all fundamental attitudes of the project sponsor, which may influence or even determine the project success or failure.
In particular when dealing with strategic “external” projects, customer intimacy is a must. The project sponsor should be willing to meet the customer periodically, exploit his personal relationships within the customer organization to the benefit of the project, and understand the values and vision of the customer to better address its needs. The project manager should always feel supported by his organization (through the project sponsor) in building-up the relationship with the customer, not challenged or even hindered by it (as sometime happens).
- Commitment and Dedication to the project (downward)
One common issue with people having large responsibilities and high level roles in the organization is lack of time and vanishing commitment after the initial phase. They are usually very present in the strategy setting, acquisition, planning and launch phases of the project, but when the project enters actual execution and controlling phases, attention and focusing of executive management tend to decrease quite rapidly. When problems, therefore, arise, project sponsors are usually no more committed to adequately support the project, because they are distracted by other priorities.
A better dedication and commitment can be probably achieved by selecting a project sponsor with lower responsibility and authority profile within the organization. If this will certainly improve his availability during the project, such an approach will have clear impact on the effectiveness of the project sponsorship.
The better choice is therefore to keep the higher profile of the project sponsor, while investing a lot in the building-up of the project sponsor – project manager relationship in the initial phase, in order to improve their empathy and mutual esteem, to be used as a booster to maintain project sponsor attention and commitment during the execution/control and closing phases.
- Coaching, Mentoring, Empowering and Motivating the project manager (downward)
As already said, the relationship between the project sponsor and the project manager is the pillar on which success of the project is leaning. The project sponsor shall make direct use of his power and authority within the organization (to support the project), but not within the team. He shall empower the project manager by delegation of authority towards the team. Team-mates shall feel the support of the sponsor to the project manager decisions, not suffer for diverging directions due to their role’s overlapping.
Coaching and mentoring shall be provided throughout the project, in order to allow the project manager to grow and improve his skills and abilities.
The project manager will reward the project sponsor for his effort, by adopting an honest and transparent attitude in reporting project status and criticality, allowing him to activate preventive or recovery measures in due time.
- Challenging and Protecting the project team (downward)
As primary interface between the executive management and the project, the project sponsor shall reinforce management directives and ensure that project is executed in full alignment with strategic objectives. He shall challenge the project team in order to get the best possible result in this respect.
At the same time, the project sponsor has to protect the project team (including the project manager) by interferences by the executive and functional management and by excessive bureaucracy (Bucero, 2007). This double role is exercised by the Lord in the Noah’s ark project: while he asked to Noah and his relatives to challenge themselves in building the big ark in a very short time, he somehow ensured that the rest of mankind does not interfere with the project.
How to Choose the Right Project Sponsor
We have seen, in the previous paragraph, which are the characteristics a good project sponsor should have to fill the gap between executive management directions and project team performance. But who actually choose the project sponsor, and how he can ensure the proper selection is made?
Normally, if the project sponsor’s role is already formalised within the performing organization, the choice of the sponsor is made directly by the executive management. In this case, the primary driver for the choice is relevant to the range of authority of the candidate sponsors. The ideal sponsor is who has the stronger leverage on the part of the organization that shall perform the project and, at the same time, a deep understanding of the needs of future users of the project deliverables. This will clearly help, in fact, in aligning the project execution with the relevant strategic objectives. In this scenario, the project sponsor is responsible to define the Project Charter and appoint the project manager. He then delegates to the latter a suitable amount of authority, needed to manage efficiently the project itself.
In most cases anyway, no formal appointment of a project sponsor is made, in particular in those organization with a low maturity in project management. When this happens, the project manager has a big opportunity to influence decisions regarding project sponsorship.
Without a proactive intervention by the project manager, the project has big chances to remain without any sponsorship. The project manager is entitled to access the executive management (or a Steering Committee when appointed) on a case by case basis to search for support. Due to the limited influence he may exert on executive management, he can probably benefit of a very limited and mild support from those who are in favour of the project, but he will certainly suffer the strong opposition and stonewalling of those who don’t share the need for the project to be implemented. In short, the project manager will usually experience unpleasant situations and the project will suffer for lack of management decision and lack of support from the parent organization.
In the very beginning anyway, a smart project manager could influence the appointment of the project sponsor with the requested profile and needed commitment.
The first step is the selection of the candidate: the project manager shall search for a high profile manager (with suitable authority and power within the organization and/or the Steering Committee) with solid business vision, and a large network of political/customer relationships.
When the candidate has been identified, the project manager shall start to “sell” the project to the potential sponsor. Selling a project means to make aware the candidate executive manager of which are the benefits he could have by sponsoring the project (Englund, 2006). Nobody will buy-in if they have no stake in the project to come. This is the phase where to lay the foundations of a project sponsor/project manager solid and long lasting relationship.
Then comes the need to explain to executive management why a project sponsor is needed. Here again the project manager shall “sell” the project sponsor’s role. He shall identify, therefore, which are the benefits for the executive management to put in place a sponsorship approach, by explaining which contribution a good project sponsor could give to ensure the company strategy is actually implemented.
If the three above steps are thoroughly performed and coordinated, the project manager, even if not entitled to “choose” the sponsor, can direct or influence the choice by the executive management.
As clearly showed by the biblical tales of Noah’s ark (positive) and of the Tower of Babel (negative), good sponsorship is key to success of projects.
Anyway, most of the time the role of project sponsor is not formalised or even recognised within organisations which are not enough mature in project management implementation. This provides the project manager with an opportunity to influence appointment of a suitable project sponsor. If he is capable to turn this opportunity into reality, by choosing the right sponsor for his project, this will facilitate the future project planning, execution and control, and ensure the project will remain aligned with company strategy.
In order to ensure continuous attention from the sponsor to the project’s fortune, the project manager should be able to establish with him, from the beginning, a fair and emphatic relationship. This will appear as a priceless investment when the project will face hard times during its execution, allowing to overcome them and complete the project successfully.
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© 2009, Sergio Gerosa
Originally published as a part of 2009 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Amsterdam, Netherlands