The project champion

key to implementation success

Jeffrey K. Pinto
College of Business Administration, University of Maine
Orono, Maine

Dennis P. Slevin
Katz Graduate School of Business, University of Pittsburgh
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania


Developing and implementing projects in organizations is difficult and often time-consuming. Project managers and executives constantly search for new methods and management techniques to reduce the complexities inherent in project implementation. A significant factor in many projects’ success is the project champion. This article discusses a champion's importance in successful project implementation. Further, it reports the results of a recent study intended to determine 1) the organization's members who perform the role of champion, and 2) the specific duties that project champions perform. Finally, given a better understanding of how champions function, we suggest guidelines for developing and encouraging project champions in our organizations.

“Champions” have long been recognized both in the organizational theory literature and within organizations themselves. A champion is an individual who:

“identifies with a new development (whether or not he made it), using all the weapons at his command, against the funded resistance of the organization. He functions as an entrepreneur within the organization, and since he does not have official authority to take unnecessary risks … he puts his job in the organization (and often his standing…) on the line… He (has)great energy and capacity to invite and withstand disapproval.” [1]

Based on our experience with these individuals, we would like to offer our own, more generalized definition of project champions. A champion is a person within the organization who uses power entrepreneurially to enhance project success. This definition implies four characteristics of champions:

• First, they have some personal or positional power in the organization.

• Second, they are willing to use that power to benefit the project.

• Third, they use their power somewhat non-traditionally or entrepreneurially.

• Fourth, they do not have to do what they do to aid the project; they go well beyond their expected and traditional job responsibilities.

In a recent article, Covin and Slevin [2] defined the characteristics of entrepreneurial activity. Entrepreneurs, they suggest, are willing to: 1) take risks, 2) be proactive, and 3) strive for innovation. Project champions, too, use their personal and positional power proactively to search for opportunities and threats and encourage innovation, and importantly, they put their careers on the line when necessary by supporting the projects they champion.

It is difficult to truly capture the enthusiasm and fervor that champions have for their idea. Tom Peters, author of the best-seller, In Search of Excellence, describes champions as “fanatics” in their single-minded pursuit of their ideas. Further, he states that “People who are tenacious, committed champions are often a royal pain in the neck...They must be fostered and nurtured — even when it hurts. “[3] In this statement, Peters captures the essence of the personality and impact of the project champion; one who is both an organizational gadfly and, at the same time, vitally important for project and organizational success.

A recent example of a successful project implementation illustrates the importance of the project championing role. A medium-sized manufacturing firm initiated a project to install a comprehensive Computer-Aided Design and Manufacturing (CAD/CAM) system for its shop floor operations. Successful development of this project was forecast to reduce front-end production process times and costs by almost 15%. The original champion role was filled by a senior production engineer who effectively agitated throughout the upper echelons of the organization for the innovation and then worked throughout the conceptualization and project planning stages to eliminate objections, budgetary roadblocks, and scheduling conflicts.

PMBOK References:

A.1 Conceptual Development

F.4 Individuals Outside the Project

F.6 The Project Team

H.1 Audience

While originally viewed as something of a nuisance, his single-minded energy eventually won over enough support to initiate pre-development studies and then project development funding. Once the project was under way, the championing role was assumed by the Vice President of Manufacturing, who by now had perceived the many benefits of successful implementation. His primary assistance to the project came in the form of smoothing the political side of the implementation effort and ensuring continued funding, even in the midst of an economic downturn. Further, he enlisted support for the project from the engineering department, probably the most important group of eventual users of the CAD/CAM system.

While the project is just beginning to go on-line, the early returns have been extremely encouraging. In the departments where the CAD/CAM system has been installed, it has been widely used and has already led to cost savings. Initial front-end manufacturing savings projections of 15% have been revised to upwards of 20%. When questioned about the reasons for the success of this project, five individuals from a variety of operating departments have pointed to the part played by the production engineer and Vice President of Manufacturing in providing an excellent environment in which the project could be successfully developed.


An intriguing characteristic of project champions is that they may occupy many different formal positions within their organizations. Their willingness to go “above and beyond the call of duty” enables them to work from a wide variety of positions. While we often find senior managers serving as champions, many members of an organization can play the role of the project champion, on different projects or at different times with the same project. Among the most common types of champions are the following:

1. Creative originator – an engineer, scientist, or similar such person who is the source of and the driving force behind the idea.

2. Entrepreneur – the person who adopts the idea and actively works to “sell” the project throughout the organization, eventually pushing it to success.

3. “Godfather” or Sponsor – a senior level manager who does everything possible to promote the project, including obtaining the needed resources, coaching the team when problems arise, calming the political waters, and protecting the project when necessary.

4. Project Manager – the project leader who handles the operational planning and day-to-day details [4].

Creative Originator

It is hardly surprising that the person behind the original development of the idea or innovation can function as a champion. No one within the organization has the sense of vision or greater expertise where the project is concerned, and few others may possess the technical or creative ability to develop the project through to fruition. Consequently, many organizations allow, and even actively encourage, the scientist or engineer who originally develops a project idea to be continually involved in its implementation. Not only are creative originators excellent cheerleaders and aggressive project developers, but they are also handy troubleshooters when problems develop within their projects.


In some organizations, it is not possible for creative originators to assume the role of project champion. They may be constrained by the nature of their position to perform pure or applied research rather than to participate on the project development team. In these situations, the individual who emerges as project champion is called an organizational entrepreneur. Entrepreneurs are organizational members who recognize the value of original ideas and adopt (not steal!) them as their own. Organizational entrepreneurs are usually middle-to-upper level managers who may or may not have technical backgrounds. In addition to performing their own duties within the organization, they are constantly on the lookout for new, potentially profitable ideas to develop.

Just as their name implies, organizational entrepreneurs have abundant energy and try to help others realize the exciting potential of their new projects. Their primary role within the organization is selling the idea to the upper management personnel and gaining support for the project's development. While entrepreneurs are not the creative, originating forces behind the idea, they often play the role of visionary or head cheerleader for the project team, as well as the rest of the organization.

“Godfather” or Sponsor

A “godfather” project champion is a senior manager in the organization who chooses to actively support the new project and does everything possible to facilitate its development and implementation. An important function of godfathers is to make it known throughout the organization that the project is under their personal guidance or protection. In addition to supplying this “protection,” godfathers engage in a variety of activities of a more substantial nature to help the project's implementation process. Godfathers make certain that resources remain available to the project throughout the development and implementation. Consequently, the project team can perform its work without having to worry about whether or not project funding will continue to its completion.

In addition to providing and ensuring necessary resources for the project, godfathers also use their influence to coach project teams when problems arise and to decrease the likelihood of political derailments of the project. When-a project is under the protection of a godfather, they address and forestall problems of either an operational or political nature that might otherwise devolve onto the project team. A godfather sponsors the project, and therefore, does everything possible to smooth out potential difficulties throughout the development and implementation stages, not only in terms of ensuring continuity of a variety of resources, but also by exerting considerable political power within the organization.

Project Manager

The final member of an organization who may play the role of the project champion is the project manager. Clearly, the champion must rise above traditional management expectations to aid the project. In order for formally identified project managers to be considered project champions as well, they must go that “extra mile” to help their projects. At one time or another, almost every project manager tinder-takes the role of project champion. The project management role in most modern organizations is multidimensional: administrator, cheerleader, ambassador, integrator, and planner [5]. In addition to their many official duties, project managers are required to perform a wide variety of unofficial activities to ensure successful implementation of their projects. One of these unofficial roles is often that of project champion. When one considers the definition of a project champion and the wide range of duties which they perform, it becomes clear why project managers are often in the best position to champion their projects. Certainly, they are strongly identified with their projects and have, to a degree, tied their careers directly to the successful development and implementation of their projects.

While project managers should invariably be the logical individuals to function as project champions, many project managers do not take on this role. One reason is that they are so caught up in the day-to-day details and activities of their projects that they are unable to “shift gears” and develop a more general, organization-wide view. Many project managers are specialists or are more comfortable paying attention to details, rather than focusing on the larger, corporate-wide picture. After being involved all week in the more micro operational activities of their projects, they find it difficult to assess how the project fits into the larger goals and realities of the organization.

Another reason stems from the political realities of the organization that often make it impossible for one person to function jointly as a project's manager and its champion. A project manager may not have the necessary political connections or may be uncomfortable engaging in organizational politics. Additionally, in many organizations project managers are simply not high enough organizationally to ensure a continued supply of resources. In either case, the project's development is greatly aided by the support of a member of the organization external to, but actively cooperating with, the project team.

Table 1. Champions As Identified by the Roles They Undertook on the Project

Role Number Percentage
Creative Originator 13 25%
Entrepreneur 11 22%
Godfather or Sponsor 20 39%
Project Manager 7 14%
  ______ ______
Total 51 100%


A study was conducted recently to determine the different activities associated with project champions. In other words, we wished to determine exactly what champions can do to aid project implementation. Fifty-one project managers were asked to think of a project in which they could identify an individual (or individuals) who acted as project champion. They were further asked to identify that individual's organizational position and to list the various activities the champion performed. Table 1 lists the set of championing activities identified by our sample of project managers.

Table 2. The Traditional and Non-Traditional Sides of Project Champions

  1. Technical Understanding - Knowledge of the technical aspects involved in developing and implementing the project.
  2. Leadership and Team Building - The ability to provide leadership and motivation for the project team.
  3. Coordination and Control - Managing and controlling the activities of the project team, as well as providing and maintaining channels of communication.
  4. Obtain and Provide Support - Gaining access to the necessary resources (financial, human, and logistical) to ensure smooth project operations.
  5. Administrative - Handling the important administrative side of the project development (e.g., paperwork, scheduling, etc.).
  1. Cheerleader - Providing the needed motivation (spiritual driving force) for the project team.
  2. Visionary - Maintaining a clear sense of purpose and a firm idea of what is involved in creating the project.
  3. Politician - Playing the necessary political games and maintaining the important contacts to ensure broad-based acceptance of the project on the part of the rest of the organization.
  4. Risk Taker - Being willing to take calculated personal or career risks to bring the project to fruition.
  5. Ambassador - Maintaining good contacts with the three groups external to and affecting the project (intended users, top management, and the rest of the impacted organization).

As can be seen from Table 1, champions can be classified according to the four categories listed previously. That is, creative originator, entrepreneur, “godfather” or sponsor, and project manager. Twenty of the project managers identified the project champion as a godfather or sponsor, 13 recognized a creative originator, 11 saw entrepreneurs, and 7 identified project managers filling the role of champion.

Table 2 shows that the champions’ activities fall into two basic categories. For the purpose of this article, we term these two types of championing “traditional” and “non-traditional.”

The traditional duties of managers include leading, coordinating and controlling, administering, and so forth. Champions can actively aid their project implementations by providing strong leadership, helping with project coordination and control, maintaining administrative help for the project team, and often supplying technological expertise. Another traditional activity of a project champion is obtaining necessary resources for the project team to perform its tasks. Champions may be excellently placed to assure a continual supply of project support.

The non-traditional activities in which project champions engage are equally important for project success but are often less well-known requirements for successful management. Being a cheerleader, visionary, politician, risktaker, and ambassador are intuitively important for most managers but tend to be de-emphasized in project management literature and training programs. As one project manager put it, “We can teach people those (traditional) skills easily enough, but experience is the best teacher for the non-traditional duties. One is rarely prepared for the non-traditional side of this job. You have to pick it up as you go.”

An interesting aspect of project champions is that, in many organizations, the majority of their time may not be engaged in performing the traditional side of project management, but rather in the non-traditional activities. Champions are often visionaries, cheerleaders, or the driving forces behind their implementation effort. Additionally, champions are expected to take on key political roles, to play the right games, make the right contacts, and network with the right people to ensure resources for the project. Finally, because, by definition, project champions strongly identify with their projects, much of their time is spent networking with other organizational units, top management, and prospective clients (users) for the finished project. As such, they take on an ambassador role throughout the organization. Champions may put their careers on the line to support their new projects and, as a result, are committed to aiding the implementation effort in every way possible, through both traditional and non-traditional activities.

Figure 1 illustrates the distinction we draw between project managers and project champions through their involvement in the traditional and non-traditional activities of management. In general, we find that project managers, because of their concern for the daily, micro aspects of the project, may often tend to focus their power and energy on the traditional side of project management. This is not to argue that project managers are intrinsically uncomfortable with the non-traditional side of project management, but rather, that the traditional activities are often more visible or pressing, and may therefore consume the vast majority of a project manager's time.

Project champions, on the other hand, typically rely on the non-traditional side of power and management style in implementing a project. Because their roles include those of creative originator, entrepreneur, or godfather, they may have little power to influence the rational side of project management. Therefore, they instead focus upon the non-traditional activities of risk taking, cheerleading, ambassador, and so forth.


Is there any evidence that the project championing process works? The answer is a definite yes. Over the past twenty years, studies of a champion's effects on the successful introduction of new products, new processes, and other forms of organizational projects and innovations have found that the presence or absence of an identifiable champion significantly impacts on the innovation's ultimate success or failure [4];[6];[7]. Given the evidence, some companies have taken the more direct approach: if a project champion does not step forward when a new project is in the process of being developed and implemented, someone from upper management will be appointed to champion the project. Even though self-appointed champions will almost always generate more enthusiasm and take more risks for a project, these companies believe that, properly trained in their responsibilities, a variety of people from top management can function effectively as project champions.

Project Manager and Champion's Employment of Traditional vs. Non-Traditional Managerial Activities

Figure 1. Project Manager and Champion's Employment of Traditional vs. Non-Traditional Managerial Activities

In this article we have attempted to discuss some of the advantages to a company through use of project champions. However, it is important that we also address one potential drawback of the championing process. While the benefits to be derived from project champions should be evident, it is possible that, at times, projects can suffer from “excessive” championing behavior. In other words, champions may actually cause more organizational problems than they alleviate. To illustrate, consider the situation in which a high-level champion is so enthusiastic about a new project, that potential drawbacks or difficulties are pushed aside. In effect, the champion may be forcing the development of a project that the manager and project team realizes will not work. Examples of projects or programs that are poorly conceived and yet still developed exist in every organization [8]. In many of these cases, the enthusiasm of the champion led to the over-hasty development of a project. Champions can be a tremendous source of inspiration or drive for a project, but their efforts need to be channeled constructively, in light of the objective assessment of project usefulness and chance for success.


Organizations differ in terms of individuals available to be project champions. While some companies have a supply at all levels of enthusiastic personnel who are willing to serve as champions, other firms are not so fortunate. In the latter case, the fault is not that these organizations have inadequate or unskilled people, but rather, that these organizations have not been aware of the benefits to be derived from champions and, consequently, have not created a climate in which champions can develop and thrive. Champions must be developed and nurtured by the organization. We have included some general guidelines for organizations to consider in making use of and gaining the benefit from project champions.

1. Identify and encourage the emergence of champions. Organizations must first create an atmosphere in which champions can develop and the championing process can work. To illustrate, consider our earlier example of the CAD/CAM implementation. In many companies, a creative originator (the senior production engineer) who continually “badgered” upper management for a new product innovation would likely offend some of the top management team. The result would either be some form of disciplinary action taken or, at the very least, a “gag order” placed on the engineer to ensure that he did not trouble upper management any more. The result of such an action would be to ensure that no others in that organization ever put their necks out. If this is how innovation is rewarded, why should they bother?

2. Reward risk takers. Jack Welch, Chief Executive Officer of General Electric, has made it a personal crusade to actively encourage senior, middle, and even junior managers to take risks. His argument has been that innovation does not come without risk; if one cannot bear to take risks, one cannot innovate. In the same sense, project champions are classic risk takers. In many cases, they put their prestige, reputations, and careers on the line in the single-minded pursuit of ideas in which they believe.

A corollary to encouraging and rewarding risk takers is to avoid punishing project failures. In most corporations, managers whose projects are successful are themselves rewarded, while managers whose projects fail are punished. Innovative projects are, by definition, high risk ventures. They can result in tremendous payoffs but they also have a concomitantly strong possibility of failure. Organizations that seek the payoffs encourage individuals to take risks, to assume championing roles in innovative projects. Even when a project does not succeed, it is important to recognize the efforts of the project team and champion. As Jack Welch has said, one project success can often pay for ten project failures. Risk takers and champions must be rewarded for their efforts, whatever the outcome.

3. Do not tie champions too tightly to the traditional side of management. With the exception of project managers, the roles played by champions (creative originator, entrepreneur, and “godfather”) are often more conducive to the non-traditional side of management. Champions, by their definition, use their power entrepreneurially. They tend to be visionaries, cheerleaders, and risktakers. They approach their goals with a single-mindedness of purpose and a sense of the project's overall design and strategy. Many times, a champion has little taste for the more routine aspects of project development and implementation, such as planning and scheduling, allocating resources, and handling the administrative details. Their expertise and true value to the project may be in their political contributions, in employing the non-traditional side of power. As a result, many organizations do not see project managers functioning in the dual roles of manager of the micro aspects of the project and more general project champion. In particular, organizations that assign champions on a project-by-project basis almost invariably choose a member of upper management who is adept at the non-traditional side of the project management process [4].

4. If necessary, use multiple champions. A final implication of our research is that multiple champions often emerge for a single project. Using the CAD/CAM project to illustrate, the initial champion was the creative innovator, who originally conceived of the idea for the project and led the early push for project development. Later, during the project's full development and implementation, a senior executive effectively took over the championing role as the project's “godfather.” It was during these later stages that the vice president was effective at removing potential roadblocks, identifying and ensuring the support of potential users, and overseeing coordination among the departments involved in the implementation process. In effect, two project champions assisted the project's development and implementation, but differentially, where they were most needed.

Some projects require only a single champion to assist in their implementation. For example, if the project manager fulfills the role of champion, he or she can oversee the project from its inception through to its development and implementation. However, in the increasingly complex world in which organizations operate, a variety of champions may usefully play the different roles required for project success. New or highly innovative projects, in particular, may derive the most benefit from the availability of multiple champions across their life cycle.


It seems clear that the movement in project management in the future is going to be toward increasing complexity and the demands for greater degrees of innovation. Both empirical research and anecdotal evidence have long supported the importance of the champion for successful project implementation [3];[4];[6];[7]. The purpose of this article has been to spell out in more detail some of the specific characteristics of project champions: who they are, what they do, what impact they have on project success, and how we can develop them in our organizations. Its increasingly clear that one element shared by many of today's successful innovative projects was the presence of an acknowledged champion. Because the role of project champions will continue to grow in our organizations, it is important for us to gain a better, more systematic understanding of their impact on project implementation success.


1. Schon, D.A., Technology and Change. New York: Delacorte, 1967.

2. Covin, J.G. & Slevin, D.P., The Influence of Organization Structure on the Utility of an Entrepreneurial Top Management Style, Journal of Management Studies, 1988, 25(3), 217-234.

3. Peters, T.A., A Passion for Excellence, Fortune, May 13, 1985.

4. Meredith, J.A., Strategic Planning for Factory Automation by the Championing Process, IEEE Transactions on Engineering Management, 1986, EM-33(4), 229-232.

5. Stuckenbruck, L.C., Project Manager - The Systems Integrator, Project Management Journal, 1978, IX(4), 31-38.

6. Maidique, M.A., Entrepreneurs, Champions, and Technological Innovation, Sloan Management Review, Winter 1980, 22, 59-76.

7. Chakrabarti, A.K., The Role of Champion in Product Innovation, California Management Review, 1974, XVII(2), 58-62.

8. Slevin, D.P. & Pinto, J.K., Balancing Strategy and Tactics in Project Implementation, Sloan Management Review, Fall 1987, 29, 33-41.


Dr. Jeffrey K. Pinto is Assistant Professor of Management in the University of Maine's College of Business Administration and Research Associate with the Graduate Center for the Management of Advanced Technology and Innovation at the University of Cincinnati. He received both his Ph.D. and M.B.A. from the University of Pittsburgh and holds a B.A. in History and a B.S. in Business Administration from the University of Maryland. His research interests include the study of project management and the processes by which organizations implement innovations and advanced technologies. He is a member of the Project Management Institute, the Academy of Management, and the Engineering Management Society.


Dr. Dennis P. Slevin is Associate Professor of Business Administration at the Katz Graduate School of Business of the University of Pittsburgh. He received his education in a variety of university settings, starting with a B.A. in Mathematics at St. Vincent College and continuing with a B.S. in Physics at MIT, an M.S. in Industrial Administration at Carnegie-Mellon University, and a Ph.D. in Business Administration al Stanford University in 1969. Dr. Slevin is a member of The Institute of Management Science, the Academy of Management, the Project Management Institute, and the Decision Sciences Institute. His most recent book, The Whole Manager, provides concrete tools for use by practicing managers.

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI.



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