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the PRINCE2™ project board approach to senior management engagement
The project Sponsor is identified as a crucial role in commissioning and authorizing projects. Yet in most environments that role and its accompanying responsibilities are often poorly defined, and it is left to Sponsors to establish what work they will actually take on. Unfortunately, many project managers find that those assumed responsibilities frequently fall short of what they really need to complete their projects successfully.
This paper will review several common approaches to senior management engagement in projects, along with their strengths and weaknesses, and explain how the PRINCE2™ approach to the Sponsor role addresses those weaknesses. The paper includes the core principles of the PRINCE2™ Project Board, how those principles contribute to project success, and how a project manager benefits from having a Project Board.
The Traditional Sponsor Role
While the role of project Sponsor is considered by most in the project management profession to be critical to achieving success in any project of significance, this role is frequently poorly defined and poorly understood. A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide), which offers itself as a “descriptive general resource,” does not prescribe what the responsibilities of a project Sponsor might be in any particular project environment. It defines the Sponsor in very general terms. In the glossary the Sponsor is described as “the person or group that provides the financial resources, in cash or in kind, for the project.” According to the PMBOK® Guide (PMI, 2004), the project Sponsor also may issue the project charter (p. 81), provide the statement of work (p. 82), be the source of information to develop the preliminary project scope statement (p. 86), influence others in order to benefit the project (p. 199-219), or officially accept deliverables (p. 102). This is a rather comprehensive list of responsibilities to attach to a single resource. Described in this manner, the project Sponsor carries a great weight – seemingly the only member of management demonstrating a formal interest in the project. Under PMBOK® Guide guidance, the Project Manager would look to the identified project Sponsor as the source for all funding, for core information about the project, the resource to call on if there are any problems, and the person who ultimately signs off on deliverables.
From this definition of the Sponsor role, we can see the first of the weaknesses associated with the PMBOK® Guide approach: the breadth and lack of specificity of the role. As defined, it is a great deal of work for one person and covers a broad range of disciplines and knowledge sets. Given the variety of responsibilities, it may be difficult for the project manager and Sponsor to determine exactly what needs to be done, how it might be done, and by whom. Should this work be the responsibility of the Sponsor (finances and charter and preliminary scope statement and whatever else is needed), with the Sponsor delegating the work out as needed? Should some (or all) of it be done by the project manager, with the Sponsor providing sign-off? Perhaps others need to be involved at a decision-making or oversight level to make the project happen, to provide the varied knowledge, resources, and understanding for effective decision-making and action. The general nature of the PMBOK® Guide doesn’t (and isn’t meant to) provide for more specifics – but its vagueness calls for great deal of clarification before a collaboration between the Sponsor and the project manager can occur.
One alternative approach that is taught in the project management curriculum comes closer to solving the problem: dividing responsibilities between a project “Sponsor” (who wants the project performed, and is willing to pay for results), and a project “Champion” (who is the primary interface with the customer – those who will actually use the outputs). In this alternative model we begin to get more clarity as to the very different needs that a “sponsor” has to fulfill: representing both the business perspective (looking for results) and the customer point of view (functionality and usability). In this model, the Sponsor focuses on “objectives”, while the Champion addresses “requirements”. It may be difficult in an organization, depending on the project size, to find one individual who can provide leadership for both those dimensions. After all, how many senior managers – with the level of authority to “provide financial resources” – would also be willing (or able) to generate a Project Charter or a Preliminary Scope Statement? A second weakness emerges and is addressed: realizing that what is needed from a project Sponsor may not be found in one individual.
But even in this model, there is a missing point of view: the perspective of the technical skills and resources that will construct the project’s outputs. A business-oriented Sponsor doesn’t work in that realm, and a Champion/ customer doesn’t know (and often doesn’t want to know) what goes on inside the black box of the product. But why is this perspective needed? Isn’t that the project manager’s job – assembling, defining and validating the technical construction of the project’s products? Actually – no! The project manager’s skills are in managing projects – not in being a lead technician. The project manager’s expertise is in – and needs to be on – project management. In addition, the project manager often does not control the resources he will need to manage, so other organizational (or extra-organizational) bodies will need to be engaged and involved with the project. Otherwise much of the project manager’s time will be consumed with finding and keeping resources, when that is only part of the job requirements. Hence, some type of overview “delivery” Sponsor will be needed when those development resources are not under the direct control of the project manager.
The Framework of the Project Sponsor Role
We can see a number of deficiencies in the traditional Project Sponsor role. These shortcoming include: absence of specificity in what the responsibilities are (or need to be), responsibilities and skills beyond the capability of one individual to accomplish, important project needs that are not addressed, and a lack of clarity on the division of work. Instead of enumerating what we do not see, let us use PRINCE2™ to help focus on what the project does need from senior management to increase the prospects for project success.
The dimensions listed below – what PRINCE2™ identifies that we need from our Sponsor – are generated in response to major risks that the project faces. These risks include: projects suspended in limbo due to a lack of serious commitment by management towards their execution, unavailable or unreliable resources, project goals not being aligned with the organizational goals and strategies, decisions made solely from the narrow perspective of the development of the technical products. These are not minor inconveniences – they are the major causes of project failure. An approach is needed to address these risks in a mode fundamental to the project’s structure and organization. PRINCE2™ uses this list of risks to shape what is needed from the project Sponsor, giving the identified role a clear, rational base.
What the Project Needs from the Project Sponsor Role
First and foremost, for a project to have a significant chance of success, senior management needs to demonstrate its commitment to the project. It has to be more than just “I’ll do whatever you want,” or a general indicated “interest” in the project. The commitment has to be based on a clear understanding of what the job entails – on well-defined responsibilities. Management needs to convey to the organization and the project manager that “we want this project to succeed, and we will do what is necessary to make that happen.” Commitment puts management weight behind the project manager’s requests for information and resources, and conveys serious interest in the project, so the project manager can focus on the work at hand. It shows the project manager that his/her work is important to the organization and is taken seriously.
The natural adjunct to commitment is accountability. Accountability is about consequences, whether the project goes well or badly. The project needs those who want the project to happen – who have said they are committed to the project – to be prepared to accept the consequences of the project’s outcome. Accountability demonstrates commitment, and is the key incentive for senior managers to take their responsibilities seriously. Managers who are being held accountable are likely to get involved when their authority or expertise is needed, since project failure would affect them directly. But what does being accountable – or not – tell us about the seriousness of the project request? Consider: why are valuable and limited funds being spent if the people who have requested the project, or for whom the project is being done, don’t want to be accountable for the results? Calling for accountability highlights, reinforces and reflects commitment. Since the project manager is already being held accountable, shared accountability generates a true team effort in solving the business’ problem.
The project needs more than one type of senior management perspective to provide guidance to the project. Here is where the role of Sponsor – i.e., only one Sponsor – turns into roles (in the multiple). Most projects need three distinct knowledge/ management/ experience perspectives:
- a business perspective – assessing whether the project is providing value to the organization as a whole, and providing the funding to obtain that value;
- user perspective – establishing that the project is meeting the needs of the people who will be directly working with the project’s outputs; and
- supplier perspective – providing confidence that the project’s outputs (from which value will be derived) can be achieved with available resources, and at the required level of quality.
These roles do not have to be filled by the actual creators or users of the outputs. The purpose of these roles is to represent their respective interests. Each perspective reflects a different dimension of the project in terms of resources provided to the project; understanding of organizational, user, and developer needs (for decision-making on ongoing project viability); and weighing project results. Each has its own assessment of what “success” means – and all three together define project success. Selecting the right people for these roles means decisions are made with the appropriate knowledge, experience, and authority to evaluate the project properly.
A major problem cited by project managers in most project environments is the difficulty of obtaining and unreliability of keeping necessary developmental resources. How can we move the project along smoothly when we can’t be sure whether we have the resources to do the work? Many of the required resources will be from the organization that has requested the project. Others will come from a ’supplier’ organization – those contracted (either internally or externally) to do the ‘construction’ work. We are looking for senior managers who control the resources we need – i.e., with authority – engaged in the project. If they are committed to the project, that would go a long way towards the project manager’s having access to and control over those required resources. When authority is combined with accountability, we have people with the resources being held accountable for the project’s success. That is the appropriate combination: if they have authority, shouldn’t they be held accountable for the results of what their resources deliver? This is balanced off during the project by the Sponsors giving the project manager, usually held solely accountable, the authority (control) over the resources needed to do the work. Here we are considering: if the people who have asked for project and/or who are needed to do the construction work are not willing to commit their resources to the project – then (again) why are we doing this project?
We need those engaged managers to make decisions at key points in the process. The core decisions are about the viability of the project, from each of the perspectives discussed above. Ultimately, from the PRINCE2™ point of view, the decision is about whether the project is adding value to the organization (from the business perspective), with critical input about usability (user’s perspective) and do-ability (supplier’s perspective).
In understanding what the project needs, all of these factors have to be considered together. That is what guides PRINCE2™ in designing these roles and responsibilities to address and help resolve major project shortcomings – the major project risks. We need managers who can represent three distinct perspective on the viability of the project, who want the project to succeed, can provide the core required resources, and who are committed to – and accountable for –making project decisions. This is significant requirements list – yet it reflects what a project needs for success. Our goal is to address the major project risks (mentioned above), and these requirements provide a roadmap towards project success by being a solid base for risk mitigation.
What the Sponsors Need From the Project to Fulfill those Responsibilities
There is another side to this equation: what these senior managers will need from the project so that they can deliver what the project asks of them. There are several requests they might make when requested to take on these roles:
- “What specifically do you want us to do, and when will you need us to do it? We want to know what our obligations are before we agree to move forward with this.” If we want commitment from these senior people, they will want to know – and we want them to know – what they are committing to: agreed roles and responsibilities. The “when” part is important too: “How much of our time is going to be needed as we move through the project, and when?”
- “If you’re asking us to be accountable for the project’s results, we will need reliable and timely information to make decisions about the project. As we being held accountable for project results, we want to be able to assess progress at key points along the way and determine whether the project continues to meet our needs.” Communication is a central element of a project manager’s job, and to obtain the benefits of senior management commitment to the project (to mitigate the risks we have discussed), it will be necessary to provide them with suitable information for decision-making.
- “If we’re not going to be involved on a daily basis, how can we be confident that the work of the project is being done properly? We will need reliable controls in place that assurance us that the work of the project – both the technical work and the managing of the project itself – is being performed to agreed-upon standards. We also want to be kept informed of the occurrence and handling of any major problems that arise in the project.” The project will need control mechanisms for the Project Board to provide confidence in the project process without overburdening either the Sponsors or the project manager. As project managers we would additionally encourage them to use specialized assurance resources they feel are necessary to confirm that the work is being right. We welcome their oversight as an additional set of eyes, to protect everyone involved with the project by detecting problems before they undermine the project.
With a common understanding of how the project is going to be run and how problems will be handled, all parties are working to the same expectations.
The Balancing Act
It appears that what we are asking from our Sponsors, and what we need to provide to them, is turning the Project Board approach into more of a burden than a help. But as with all aspects of project management, it is a balancing act. The things we are looking for from our Project Board will help mitigate major project risks. As with any effective risk management analysis, we have to weigh the costs of not addressing these risks (project failure? endangerment of organizational initiatives? squandered resources?) against the costs to mitigate those risks (the extra effort to support our Sponsors). Since those risks relate to the fundamental success-or-failure of the project, additional costs and efforts to implement this risk mitigation (engaging these Sponsors) are likely to be worth it. In smaller or low-risk projects, some of the responsibilities and/or Project Board expectations may not be necessary, so this approach would be tailored to the specific needs of those projects. The larger or more complex the project – or the greater risk it carries for the organization – the greater the need for this type of project oversight.
What PRINCE2™ Recommends for Project Boards
The Project Board Members
PRINCE2™ recognizes that those with a problem to be solved (the “Customer”) are likely to be different from those who will provide the solution (the “Supplier’), but they need to work together to ensure that the defined project meets both of their goals. At the same time, different parties on the Customer side might themselves have different perspectives. One Customer perspective is that Business needs have to be met (“I don’t care how you do it, but we need to see XYZ as a result”), while the people who actually will be working with (“touching”) the products that will be created want to make sure they will actually be usable (“will this really work – or will it just bring us more headaches?”). So PRINCE2™ proposes the creation of a Project Board, representing these three distinct interests to take on the traditional role of Sponsor. This Project Board consists of three roles:
- an Executive – representing the interests of the greater business, and asking “Does this project meet a true business need, and does it provide value?” If this interest isn’t protected in the project, we run the significant risk of creating something that adds no value to the organization, pulling important resources from projects that could provide a useful benefit.
- a Senior User – representing the interests of those who will actually use or work with the final deliverables. This may not be the same body that wants to see value. The Senior User makes sure that the actual users are satisfied with the solution and will be able to employ it in their work to produce the expected Business benefits. Without this interest involved, products are created that don’t serve the need, are underutilized, or ignored.
- a Senior Supplier – representing the interests and perspective of those constructing the solution. The suppliers are the technical resources; they make sure it can be done, and that it meets quality expectations. The project might use in-house and external supplier teams to do that work, and the interests of all these sources need to be considered. Without Supplier representation in decision-making, the Customer might ask for a solution that can’t be delivered – with the waste of time and effort being discovered only after the project is well under way.
These roles might be combined (e.g., the same person might serve as both the Executive and the Senior User), but PRINCE2™ reminds us that they are three distinct perspectives, and none should be eliminated. When we have one person filling more than one role there is a tendency to bias towards one or the other role, so one perspective may be submerged, endangering the success of the project. As PRINCE2™ is designed for use in all types of projects, we could imagine a home construction project where a person is designing and constructing his or her own home. The person could appropriately serve in all three roles, and that would probably be appropriate to that particular type of project. In medium to large projects all three perspectives, represented by different people, generally need to be involved to assure that all dimensions of the project’s needs – and its success measurements – are considered. PRINCE2™ also reminds us that a large Project Board can be difficult to manage and could make decision-making overly complex. If there are numerous people who have a legitimate interest in project oversight, they should be encouraged to appoint a spokesperson to carry out that role.
Ownership of the Project and Accountability of the Project Board
Exhibit 1 represents the Project Board in a PRINCE2™ project.
Exhibit 1. The Project Board
A PRINCE2™ Project Board owns the project, and is accountable for its results. Collectively, their responsibility is to oversee the project by providing resources, direction and insight, and making decisions about the ongoing viability of the project. Their accountability is to a higher level of management (represented in Exhibit 1 by “Corporate or Program Management”), determined by the nature of the project and its possible relationship with other projects (e.g., as part of a Program). That accountability can be either self-accepted (“I am willing to be held accountable for project results”) or by assignment (“you are being assigned to the project board of this project, and will be held accountable for its results”). Accountability seems difficult to apply in the context of PRINCE2™ Project Boards – but it is no different from any other business accountability. It appears to be different because someone else (the project manager) is doing the work. However it is appropriate business practice to assign accountability and ownership to those who have requested a project for which organizational resources are being allocated.
The work of the Project Board
The Project Board has well-defined responsibilities:
- Provide resources to enable the project manager to do his/her job. Members of the Project Board should have a high enough level of authority to assign necessary project resources as they are required;
- Assess whether the project is meeting its agreed goals – from each of the three perspectives;
- Make decisions concerning the viability of the project, and subsequently release resources to the project manager as viability is established, to proceed to the next block of work in the project (a PRINCE2™ “stage”);
- Serve as an information resource to the project manager (particularly with regard to activities and issues beyond the project manager’s ‘field of vision’), and provide guidance on dealing with project issues, when requested;
- Review and respond to all project threat issues presented by the project manager;
- Agree on whether and how funding of risk mitigation should occur;
- Serve as the official voice of the project to the organization-at-large.
The responsibilities of the Project Board (described in additional detail in two major sections of the PRINCE2™ manual) need to be customized to the needs of the particular project and its Project Board members, and must be documented and agreed, to ensure a clear, common understanding.
When the Project Board Does Its Work
PRINCE2™ is a process-driven methodology, so clear guidelines are provided as to the when of the Project Board’s work. Since the project’s Executive is the core business representative on the Project Board, the Executive is appointed in the very beginning of the PRINCE2™ process model. The Executive works with the appointed project manager to determine and clarify who the other members of the Project Board should be (i.e., the Senior User and Senior Supplier). This early definition of the Project Board members helps assure that there is senior management involvement from the beginning of the project. Once the members of the Project Board have been identified, much of the information gathering and communication is led from the project manager’s side.
Upon agreement to move forward with the project, the Project Board authorizes the project manager to develop a “Project Initiation Document” (or PID) to establish both the scope of the project (like a Project Scope Statement) and how the project is to be managed (a Project Management Plan) to achieve project results. When the PID has been prepared (along with a plan for the first Stage of development work), the Project Board is engaged again to formally approve (or not) going forward to begin the actual development work (the next Stage). At the completion of each Stage, the Project Board officially approves the technical products and reviews the management information to establish whether or not the project continues to meet each of their objectives. As the owners of the project, the Project Board always has the option to cancel the project at any time, which might occur of the project is no longer relevant to business needs (or no longer fits into business strategy), is becoming too costly, or cannot meet their objectives. Since these end Stage assessments are not intended to be frequent, status (Highlight) reports are prepared by the project manager to keep the Project Board regularly informed. Finally the Project Board, having opened the project, officially closes it down at the natural completion of the project, or upon a premature closure.
PRINCE2™ sets up additional, clear control mechanisms to detect and report significant deviations in any of its key “constraint” dimensions (its “tolerances,” defined as time, cost, scope and quality – but also including business benefits and risk). The agreed tolerances also define what “significant” means, so there is agreed understanding of the range of what is acceptable. A well-defined series of processes identifies, captures, analyzes and reports on these situations. The Project Board is then engaged by the project manager to evaluate these situations, and determine how the project shall proceed (with many of the same considerations that occur at the end of Stages).
The members of the Project Board have an ongoing responsibility to keep their eyes out for those issues in the organization that might not be seen by the project manager, and convey that information back to the project manager. They also need to be available for advice and guidance, and to communicate project issues to members of the organization, when relevant and/or when those organizational members are unavailable to the project manager.
PRINCE2™’s approach to senior management engagement pervades the entire methodology, and specifies the what and when of the Project Board’s roles and responsibilities. The Project Board provides support to the project and the project manager, and helps mitigate major project risks – all towards achieving the goals of the project.
For further information:
The PRINCE2™ Manual is available through the UK Government’s Office of Government Commerce (the owner PRINCE2™) at www.ogc.gov.uk/prince2/, or through booksellers. PRINCE2™ is supported by a rigorous accreditation process, including accreditation of training organizations, trainers, practitioners and consultants. The accrediting body is the APM Group, http://www.prince2.org.uk; their website lists approved training organizations, consultants and practitioners.) The author can be contacted at email@example.com.
PRINCE2 is a registered trademark of the UK Government’s Office of Government Commerce (OGC). PMBOK, PMI and PMP are registered trade and service marks of The Project Management Institute, Inc.
Office of Government Commerce (2005)Prince2™Manual. Retrieved from www.ogc.gov.uk/prince2/
Project Management Institute (2004) A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide), Newtown Square, PA: Project Management Institute
©2006, Jay M. Siegelaub
Originally published as a part of 2006 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Seattle Washington