Project Management Institute

Project sponsorship

                    Jane Currey

The theme of the Executive Notebook for 1995 has been determining expectations and establishing accountabilities. To continue on that theme, this month we are looking at the importance of dedicated and competent project sponsorship. Jane Currey's article addresses who the sponsor should be, how the sponsor is appointed, what the sponsor should do, what the project leader needs to do in order to make sponsorship work, and what the potential problems are with sponsorship. Also included is “A Sponsor's Checklist” that provides guidelines to the project sponsor relative to their role and concerns during the initiation, execution, and completion phases of a project.

If you are a project sponsor, this article provides a model containing some generic roles and responsibilities for you to follow. If you are not a project sponsor, but are working with one, please pass this information along. It will add value to your relationship with the project sponsor and to the productivity of the entire project effort.

Joan Knutson, Feature Editor

More and more project managers are becoming aware of the importance of having a committed and “savvy” project sponsor. Those who have led projects both with such a sponsor and without will almost always cite effective sponsorship as a critical success factor. But many project managers, especially those less experienced, are woefully unaware of the difference sponsorship makes. Sometimes the lack of it is indirectly recognized as insufficient “management support,” with no specifics given.

The project leader who knows what sponsorship should be is more likely to gain the full benefit of it and to recognize its absence. This person will know how to work effectively with a sponsor and how to handle sponsorship problems.

Who Should the Sponsor Be?

The term sponsor is often used incorrectly to refer to the original requester or others who support the project and wish it to succeed but may or may not have the appropriate organizational authority. The logical project sponsor is the person in the organization who both wants the project accomplished and has responsibility for all of the organizational units affected. In short, the sponsor is the person who can “make it happen.”

Usually an executive or member of management, the sponsor normally champions the project, pays for it, and makes sure the changes are accepted in the business units affected. Therefore, this person needs to possess an organizational authority equal to or greater than the scope of influence of the project.

Note that the project sponsor is consistently referred to in the singular, not plural. “Co-sponsorship” is not recommended, since conflicting interests between two sponsors may put the project in stalemate or otherwise jeopardize success.

How is the Sponsor Appointed?

This will vary by organization. Often the sponsor is named by the same management body that approves and prioritizes projects.

For large projects that affect multiple areas of an organization, the logical sponsor is usually the CEO. Since the CEO seldom has time to be an effective sponsor for all such projects, an acting sponsor may be named. This person needs to be given the authority to act for the top executive in all sponsorship matters. The specifics of such an arrangement are usually worked out between the two individuals, but it is imperative that all members of the project community recognize the temporary authority of the acting sponsor.

What Should the Sponsor Do?

Along with the management body that approves projects, the sponsor will:

  • Set the project priority
  • Provide funding
  • Approve resource levels.

In addition, the sponsor will:

  • Finalize (and approve any changes to) the project objectives, scope, and success criteria
  • Ensure that the project team has the time and resources they need to achieve success
  • Communicate the project purpose and value to the business management
  • Commit specific resources from the business community
  • Pave the way for change in the affected organizational units
  • Participate in major project reviews and approve key deliverables
  • Make key project decisions
  • Ensure timely resolution of issues affecting project success.

If a sponsor carried out only these responsibilities, the project's chances of success are greatly improved. But there is another dimension to effective sponsorship that is not easily itemized, and that is the ability of the sponsor to ensure that the project participants are focused on and committed to a common purpose and vision of success. The project leader can achieve this within the core team, but it is the sponsor who can expand that commitment to include the larger business community and support functions.

One final word on sponsor responsibilities: should there arise serious doubt about the value of the project to the company or about its chances of success, it is the sponsor's job to bring this to the attention of the authorizing management body and to make a recommendation. This is surely not an enviable position, but this is not the time for the sponsor to fade into the woodwork.

An effective project sponsor can make the project leader's life immeasurably easier. Clear objectives, commitment of the business community to the project's success, adequate funding and resources, quick resolution of issues, cooperative clients … who can argue? The smart project leader will use sponsorship for all it's worth.

What Can the Project Leader Do to Make Sponsorship Work?

First and most important, the project leader must know what effective sponsorship looks like. Many project sponsors have little understanding of the role, and it may fall to the project leader to educate them—not just on the tasks, but on the time commitment as well. First-time sponsors typically underestimate the amount of time it takes, and the seasoned project leader will be prepared with estimates and confirmation from other project sponsors.

One approach is to work with the sponsor to develop a sponsorship agreement, clarifying the sponsor's role and specific responsibilities. This is particularly important when sponsorship has been delegated to an “acting sponsor”—some responsibilities may be delegated and others may remain with the logical (original) sponsor.

Next, the project leader should take steps toward developing an effective working relationship with the sponsor. This should include talking with the sponsor about his or her working style—some will be very “hands on,” others less so. Some items for discussion:

  • How the project leader should report progress
  • What kinds of issues the sponsor should be involved in
  • How progress should be communicated to the business management
  • Which deliverables the sponsor will approve
  • How the sponsor should be involved in requested changes to the project
  • The best time and means of communication.

Finally, the project leader can take specific steps to keep the sponsor involved throughout the life of the project. Again, knowing what the sponsor should be doing and clearly stating those expectations is primary. Following through on those expectations is the important corollary. The project leader can help maintain sponsor involvement in the following ways:

  • As the project moves from one phase to another, discuss with the sponsor what to expect and what questions he or she should be concerned with (see sidebar).
  • When deliverables are submitted for review, indicate what kind of feedback is needed.
  • Involve the sponsor in the preparations for major project reviews, with emphasis on decisions to be made.
  • Inform the sponsor promptly of issues needing sponsorship resolution, providing background, pros, cons, and recommendations.

What Are the Potential Problems With Sponsorship?

The most serious sponsorship problem is not having a sponsor. Project sponsorship is really a matter of organizational policy. If an organization has not reached the point where they require every project to have a sponsor, there is little the project leader can do except articulate the benefits of having one and point out the risks of not. If, on the other hand, the policy exists, but for various reasons a sponsor has not been named, the project leader should keep the issue alive and press for resolution— even going so far as recommending the project be canceled or postponed.

The next most serious problem is having the wrong person as sponsor. Usually this means the person does not have organizational authority commensurate with the scope of the project—that is, he or she is not high enough in the management hierarchy. Recognizing that authority and hierarchy are not popular words in these days of flattened organizations and empowered teams, it is still a fact of life that people resist change. Occasionally, after all other persuasive means have been used, it may be necessary to say, “This is what we are doing. If you cannot support it, you need to go elsewhere.” And that requires organizational authority.

Sometimes the problem can be the opposite: the sponsor is too high in the organization. He or she may be the appropriate sponsor, but have insufficient time, in which case the answer is delegation to an acting sponsor. Or the person may be too far removed from the scope and objectives of the project to be effective in giving direction. The suggestion in this case is to review the sponsorship definition and responsibilities with the person and provide an alternative—suggest a more suitable sponsor and also a means for keeping this person involved, if they wish, at a more appropriate level.

Sponsor's Checklist from Beginning to End

Project Initiation

Your most important job during project initiation is to ensure that the project objectives are clear and that the cost-benefit analysis makes it a good investment of the company's resources. You will normally work together with the management body that approves projects (to clarify the potential benefits) and with the assigned project leader (to understand what's possible and the estimated costs). Here are some questions you will want to ask:

  • Why is this project needed? What's the problem being solved or the opportunity to be seized? How does it support our corporate goals?
  • What are the objectives? What will the end result look like?
  • What are the benefits? How will life be better when the project is over?
  • How will we measure success? What is our baseline? What is our target?
  • What areas of the organization will be affected? In what ways?
  • Who needs to be involved? And how?
  • What are the boundaries or scope of the project?
  • What are the constraints—in time, in money, in quality?
  • What can realistically be achieved within those constraints?
  • Roughly how much will it cost and how long will it take?
  • What are the risks? Can they be managed?
  • Should we proceed?

Project Execution

During the life of the project you will want to stay involved—not in the day-to-day details, but in weekly or bi-weekly updates with the project leader (and possibly the core team). You will want to see progress tracked against the approved work plan and schedule, and to see key deliverables at defined milestone review points. You can also expect to make decisions regarding suggested changes in the project scope and/or deliverables. Some pertinent questions to pose:

  • Are we accomplishing what we planned to accomplish? Within the planned time frame? With the planned resources? Within budget?
  • Is there anything I can do to facilitate your work?
  • Are you getting the cooperation you need from the business units?

At the same time, you will be the project spokesperson to the rest of the organization. You may need to do some marketing, some persuading, and some negotiating, especially if there is resistance to the changes the project is bringing. If there are any signs that the project is in trouble, you will be fact-finding, problem solving, and maybe sticking your neck out. A few important questions when facing a problem:

  • Can we still achieve the objectives? Are they still of value to the organization?
  • What are our alternatives? What are the pros and cons?
  • Should the project be stopped?

Project Completion

As the project nears completion, you will focus primarily on transition management. The project team should have a documented implementation plan. You may need to commit extra resources in the affected business units, and set their expectations for some degree of disruption. Plan to be very available to troubleshoot and resolve issues. As sponsor, you will have valuable contributions to the post-project review, and can pose some important questions:

  • Did we accomplish what we planned to accomplish? Within the planned time frame? With the planned resources? Within budget?
  • How did we perform based on our success criteria?
  • Are plans in place to measure the predicted benefits?
  • What lessons did we learn?
  • What remains to be done?

Sometimes everything looks good on paper, but the project sponsorship is not working the way it should. The correction of course depends on pinpointing the specific problem.

  • What aspect is not working?
  • What responsibility is not being effectively carried out?

Once this is determined, try to isolate the cause.

  • Is the sponsor too busy?
  • Is the sponsor unaware of this responsibility?
  • Is there an underlying issue of which this is the symptom?

Then consider possible corrective actions.

  • Should someone else be appointed sponsor?
  • Can a more experienced sponsor provide some guidance?
  • Can the issue be resolved, or is it simply a reality that must be acknowledged (and the schedule adjusted appropriately)?

Then the project leader needs to decide how to proceed. This is one of the most delicate problems a project leader is called upon to handle. The temptation is to avoid dealing with it, but the price may be high. Providing a clear statement of the problem, the risks involved, and some alternative actions will help considerably.

Finally, the project leader needs to know how to respond if there should be a change in sponsor during the project. This is also a high-risk situation. At the very least, the new sponsor usually has no personal commitment to the success of the project—may in fact think it a waste of company resources and call for it to be canceled. Such clear opposition, however, is far preferable to the worst case, in which the new sponsor has different expectations but fails to clearly articulate them.

When there is a change in sponsor, the project leader's most urgent responsibility is to review and discuss in depth with the new sponsor the project's background, objectives, scope, anticipated benefits, and specific success criteria. It may be necessary to completely rewrite the project definition, but this is better than proceeding with unclear expectations.


An effective project sponsor can make the project leader's life immeasurably easier. Clear objectives, commitment of the business community to the project's success, adequate funding and resources, quick resolution of issues, cooperative clients … who can argue? The smart project leader will use sponsorship for all it's worth.

Jane Currey is senior consultant with Project Management Mentors. She has over 25 years experience in information services, specializing in departmental and project management, methodology and

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.

PM Network • March 1995



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