Fundamentals of project sponsorship

Janice Christenson, PMP

Abstract

Project sponsorship when representative of senior management support is the number one critical success factor for project and change initiative success. Given the criticality of this role, it is surprising that accidental project sponsors are the rule with a few exceptions where organizations have more advanced project management maturity. To help advance project management maturity in all organizations and assist them with achieving greater project success, it is critical that project sponsors understand their role in each of the five Process Groups throughout the project’s life cycle.

Introduction

This paper is not and does not purport to be a research or academic paper per se but a reflective paper on the topic of project sponsorship. This paper will lay a foundation to support and posit the criticality of the project sponsor role when required. It will then review each of the five Process Groups as outlined in the Project Management Institute’s A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide)—Fourth Edition and identify the major role of the project sponsor in each Process Group. The paper concludes by summarizing these necessary roles.

Discussion

While some will avow that modern project management has matured from its modern day inception in the 1940s (Meredith & Mantel, 1995; Yeo, 1996) the topic of project sponsorship is just spawning. Regardless of maturation and phenomenal growth of the project management discipline, it still struggles to meet the full potential of its value proposition; continuous project successes. In fact, the whole concept of success is often debated (Norrie, 2009) but what appears relatively undisputed in the literature are the critical success factors (CSF) to project success (Christenson, 2007; Christenson & Walker, 2005; White & Fortune, 2002).

The etiology of critical success factors was developed by Daniel (1990) and later refined by Rockart (1986) into a typology of four basic types of critical success factors that are goal oriented and measurable. A review of the main bodies of project management literature identifies critical factors necessary for the successful implementation of projects.

Well-defined goals are critical to the success of any company, but it is just as important to identify the critical success factors (CSF) needed to attain those goals. Usually such CSFs are not fully developed at the planning meeting outlining company goals, but are hammered out afterward, then communicated to company employees. This is also the unfortunate case in projects, as critical success factors are essential in achieving success but often not discussed until the project’s implementation phase. Regardless of this late consideration, critical success factors are important in relation to projects and have been gaining increasing attention from scholars and researchers.

Not surprisingly, the first examinations were to understand what factors contributed to failed projects. The last 20 years have been spent examining similar criteria but with the view of understanding what factors led to successful project outcomes. Regardless if we examine groupings of success criteria or we review criterion singularly, seven such criteria are most often identified as being the primary success criteria for most projects. As seen below, many of the classic studies in this subject area, as well as the most recent by Christenson (2007), but also by White and Fortune (2002) and Hellreigel, Slocum, and Woodman (1992), and identify most of the following items as critical success factors:

  1. Senior management support
  2. Adequate resources
  3. Clear goals or requirements
  4. Project management framework
  5. Project control system
  6. Project manager competence
  7. Project vision

The criticality of project sponsorship is well documented in the literature and paramount over all of the other 7 critical success factors in both project and change initiatives (Christenson, 2007; Christenson & Walker, 2004; and Kotter, 1996). This should not be surprising as senor management support, typically conveyed through a project sponsor is the linkage between the project’s purpose and the strategic objectives of the host organization. However, one should not assume that sponsorship is the same as senior management support. It is possible to have one senior manager be supportive and act as your project’s sponsor while the rest of the senior management team is not supportive. Also, not every project requires a sponsor but every sponsor does require senior management support.

It is also not surprising that the criticality of project sponsorship is paramount for both projects and change initiatives as project management and change management are inextricably linked. By the very definition of projects, which “create a unique product, service or result” (PMI, 2008) the project’s uniqueness will cause a change.

Given the preponderance of evidence highlighting the criticality of the sponsor’s role, it is surprising that academics are just beginning to investigate the dynamics of project sponsorship on project success (Englund & Bucero, 2006).

Even more surprising is that many organizations will cite project sponsorship as very important to project success, but few have invested in the training of personnel in this role. As such, we repeat our course of project management history having made significant inroads into the eradication of accidental project managers only now to be faced with a greater challenge of educating accidental project sponsors.

While not intending to enter the debate regarding the differences between management and leadership, one cannot neglect the observance that project sponsorship is very much a leadership role. As such, the effort needed by project sponsors will generally change throughout the life cycle of a project. While a great deal of leadership is required in the initiation phase, less is required during the closing phase. One might argue as has (Christenson, 2007) that both management and leadership are required during the planning and execution phase. A project’s life cycle is simply a framework to take a project from its inception to completion. Contained within PMI’s suggested framework is also five Process Groups (PMI, 2008) of:

  1. Initiating,
  2. Planning
  3. Executing
  4. Closing, and
  5. Monitoring and Controlling.

We will use these five Process Groups as a backdrop to our analysis and discussion of the necessary role of the project sponsor throughout the project’s lifecycle.

However, before looking at the specific duties of an effective project sponsor under each process group we should first define the general role of the project sponsor. It is generally agreed that the project sponsor is a senior manager who has the desire and authority to make the project happen. They are also seen as an advocate for the project and the person responsible for securing the necessary resources to complete the project. Ultimately, they are accountable for the success of the project from the client or host perspective and as such should fulfill the following key responsibilities:

  • Establish business objectives and ensures they are met,
  • Confirm and approves project scope,
  • Approve major deliverables,
  • Chair the project steering committee,
  • Monitor overall progress,
  • Review and approve change requests,
  • Provide direction to project manager,
  • Resolve escalated issues, and
  • Assume responsibility for final sign-off of the project.

The role is distinguishable from that of the project manager who is responsible for the successful delivery of the project’s unique product or result. The project sponsor is accountable for the success of the project that includes realizing the desired benefits as set out in the justification document during the project’s inception or initiation phase.

Project sponsorship is also not a singular role but fulfills a dual role with accountabilities to the temporary organization (the project) as well as to the permanent organization (host company) (Crawford & Helm, 2009). When additional resources or senior management decisions are required, the sponsor needs to advocate from the perspective of the project to the host organization. When the project is at risk or performing poorly, there may be a need for the sponsor to apply additional governance from the perspective of the host organization to the project. Regardless of the perspective, the project sponsor has a specific role to fulfill throughout the project’s lifecycle.

Initiating

The Initiating processes are “performed to define a new project or a new phase of an existing project by obtaining authorization to start the project or phase” (PMI, 2008). The project sponsor is typically and often in a good position within the context of the host organizational context to know of the perceived need for a project based on the organization’s objectives. Therefore, it is crucial that he project sponsor is intimately involved in the justification and selection of the solution (project) to address the need. Unfortunately this is in an ideal situation and project sponsors are often selected arbitrarily or only for symbolic reasons. This then assigns accidental project sponsors to a critical role and puts the project at risk from its inception.

Regardless of the selection method of the sponsor, their role includes the creation of a detailed project definition from which a project scope statement and project authorization document (charter) can be crafted. Once these documents are completed the primary role of the project sponsor to complete the initiation phase is to authorize the starting of the project by signing the project authorization document.

However, there is much more that an effective project sponsor should do. In the initiation phase, the project sponsor should paint a credible and realistic picture of their preferred future end state (project vision) (Walker & Christenson, 2005). Also, this is the appropriate time to set up the project’s governance structure as to facilitate all levels of decision making throughout the life cycle of the project. This includes escalation procedures, committee structures (i.e. steering or advisory committees), and change control procedures.

Planning

The planning processes are “performed to establish the total scope of the effort, define and refine objectives, and develop the course of action required to attain those objectives (PMI, 2008).” While many will argue that planning is a management task (Mintzberg, 1994), the project sponsor needs to be involved in these processes. Too often, project sponsors delegate their involvement to the project manager or worse, have little tolerance for planning at all. However, the amount of planning should be consistent with the level of complexity of the project and its inherent risk profile once established.

One of the key roles of the project sponsor is to have input and agreement as to the detailed scope of the project including what will be out of scope. The project sponsor is likely in the best position to ensure the scope statement is strategically aligned with the objectives of the organization and is culturally consistent with the organizational context.

Executing

The Executing processes “are performed to complete the work defined in the project management plan to satisfy he project objectives (PMI, 2008).” The central role of the project sponsor during the Executing processes is to ensure that the work is being completed as planned and to deliberate on suggested change requests. To fulfill these roles, the project sponsor will need to assist in motivating the project manager and project team. Motivating also requires that the project sponsor holds the project manager accountable when necessary and supports them in problem-solving project issues. A more positive approach of creating motivation is also to reward project successes and desired change behavior.

One of the most frequent complaints of project managers in relation to project sponsors is that they are not available when required and, when available, remain indecisive on required project decisions. This will likely result in project delays, but not in the way that most assume. The delays are not the result of project managers and teams waiting for a decision, but come from re-work because they have made the wrong decision in the absence of the project sponsor’s input.

Closing

The Closing processes are, “performed to finalize all activities across all of the Project Management Process Groups to formally close the project or phase (PMI, 2008).” The project sponsor’s central function is to review and accept the deliverable of the project. However, the sponsor also has the forward-looking role in ensuring there is a transition plan to support benefit realization as well as the collection of project information to assist in supporting future project successes in the organization.

The project sponsor is often the primary or secondary client for the project and as such should approve or disapprove the acceptance of the Execution processes output or the project’s product. It is also paramount that the project sponsor ensure there is a well thought transition plan to place this product into operations in order that the expected benefits from the product can be maintained through to full benefit realization.

Lastly, there is valuable information that should be captured from this project and made available to future projects, which is typically captured through a lesson-learned evaluation. This does not end the required evaluation requirements of the project as a post-implementation evaluation should also be completed once the benefits realization is completed. This also suggests that the role of project sponsor actually is extended for a far longer period than that of the project manager or project team. Most project sponsors do not appreciate this extended time line of their role.

Monitoring and Controlling

The Monitoring and Controlling processes “are required to track, review, and regulate the progress and performance of the project, identify any areas in which changes to the plan are required and initiate the corresponding changes (PMI, 2008).” The role of the project sponsor is to conduct variance analysis between what was planned and what is being completed and to ensure corrective action is taken. As mentioned earlier, recommendations for this corrective action should be presented in the form of a change request that the project sponsor needs to consider and approve or present to the steering committee.

Ideally, major review points commonly called “go” and “no-go” decisions or stage gates should be part of the Monitoring and Controlling process. Similar to a change request, the project sponsor needs to make this decision or seek out this decision from the steering committee.

To mistake project sponsorship as an effective catalyst of project success from its mere presence can be fatal to your project.

Conclusion

Project sponsorship is the most important critical success factor for project or change initiative success when it represents senior management support. However, to mistake sponsorship for senior management support in some cases can be a fatal error.

An effective project sponsor will act as a single point of accountability for the project. They will promote the need for the project and the change it brings while setting an appropriate vision for the project. They will also support the project manager and hold them to account when necessary. But most importantly they will be accessible and definitive in making timely and informed decisions.

The project sponsor has a role throughout the life cycle of the project and in each of the five Process Groups. However, their role extends beyond the traditional life cycle and remains critical until the full expected benefits of the project have been realized.

References

Christenson, D. (2007). Using vision as a critical success element in project management. (Unpublished Doctorate Dissertation), RMIT University, Melbourne, Australia.

Christenson, D., & Walker, D. H. T. (2004). Understanding the role of “vision” in project success. Project Management Journal, 35(3), 39–52.

Crawford, L. H., & Helm, J. (2009). Government and governance: The value of project management in the public sector. Project Management Journal, 40(1), 73–87.

Daniel, D. (1990). Hard problems in a soft world. International Journal of Project Management, 8(2), 79–83.

Englund, R., & Bucero, A. (2006). Project sponsorship: Achieving management commitment for project success. San Francisco, CA, USA: John Wiley and Sons.

Hellreigel, D., Slocum, J. W., & Woodman, R. W. (1992). Organizational Behavior, 6th Ed. Eagan, MN, USA: West Publishing Company.

Kotter, J. P. (1996). Leading Change. Boston, MA, USA: Harvard Business School Press.

Meredith, J. & Mantel, S. (1995). Project management: A managerial approach. New York: John Wiley and Sons, Inc.

Mintzberg, H. (1994). The rise and fall of strategic management. London: Prentice-Hall International (UK).

Norrie, J. (2008). Breaking through the project fog. Mississauga, Ontario. John Wiley and Sons Canada Ltd.

PMI. (2008). A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide)—Fourth Edition. Newtown Square, PA, USA: Author.

Rockart, J., & Van Bullen, C. (1986). A Primer on Critical Success Factors. In J. Rockart & C. Van Bullen (Eds.), The rise of management computing. Homewood: Irwin.

White, D., & Fortune, J. (2002). Current practice in project management—An empirical study. International Journal of Project Management, 20(1), 1–11.

Christenson, D. and D. H. T. Walker (2004, September). Understanding the Role of “Vision” in Project Success. Project Management Journal 35(3) 39-52.

Yeo, K. T. (1996). Management of change—From TQM to BPR and beyond. International Journal of Project Management, 14(6), 321–324.

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 or any listed author.

© 2010, Dr. Dale Christenson, DPM, PMP, CMC and Janice Christenson, PMP
Originally published as a part of 2010 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Washington DC

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