Project sponsorship

a collaborative journey

Abstract

Effective project sponsorship is a key to project success. However, there is no “Project Sponsor Body of Knowledge” guide to assist project sponsors in understanding what it means to be an effective sponsor. As a result, those in the role of sponsor are rarely aware of what it means to be a project sponsor.

This paper explores the definition and role of the project sponsor by comparing it to more traditional portrayals of “sponsor” and discussing the similarities. The role of the project steering committee and multiple project sponsors will also be included. Also explored is the role of the project manager in communicating and negotiating their individual, and the project's need for effective collaboration.

Introduction

Have you read the Project Sponsor Body of Knowledge? No? As project management professionals, we know that effective sponsorship is a key to project success. Unfortunately, our sponsors have not received formal training in project management or how to sponsor a project. Their education and experience lies in the business that their project's support. There are books available to assist project sponsors in supporting the role they have taken on (Englund & Bucero, 2006) but exposing sponsors to the material and gaining acceptance of the principles remains a challenge. We are assigned to manage a project because it is our area of expertise. As such, it is our responsibility to ensure that project sponsors understands their roles—and our needs—to provide effective sponsorship.

Sponsorship, while relatively new to the project management arena, is not really a new practice and, chances are, your sponsor has had some experience that they may not realize is relevant. For example, other types of sponsorship that have been around for a while include:

  • Boarding an exchange student
  • Sponsoring an athletic
  • Hosting a family member's wedding and reception.

What is the role of the sponsor in these projects? What is the role of the sponsored? In looking at these examples, we can apply principles of sponsorship in our projects. Project managers can better articulate the needs of the project sponsor when they gain a greater understanding of the role and the significance it has played in other areas.

Common challenges to projects include the productive use of a project steering committee and satisfying the needs of multiple sponsors. Continuing the theme of looking at historical examples of these situations, we gain greater understanding of how to align these roles within our project structure.

Communication is the number one activity of a project manager. The project sponsor is our number one stakeholder. Therefore, communication with our project sponsor must be effective or the project will suffer. It is up to us to build a healthy and effective relationship with our sponsor while keeping in mind that the project is our center of focus—but may only be a blip on the sponsor's realm of responsibility. Effective communication must balance the needs of our project and the sponsor's capacity. The proper balance is going to vary project by project, sponsor by sponsor. This paper explores how to gain understanding to the proper balance on a specific project and gain commitment to sustaining the balance.

The objectives of this paper are to:

  • Define effective project sponsorship
  • Identify sponsor roles, responsibilities, and needs
  • Identify the “right” level of sponsor participation
  • Understand satisfying multiple sponsors
  • Understand project manager responsibilities.

Effective Project Sponsorship

Sponsorship Defined

A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) defines a project sponsor as:

A sponsor is the person or group that provides the financial resources, in cash or kind, for the project. When a project is first conceived, the sponsor champions the project. This includes serving as spokesperson to higher level of management to gather support throughout the organization and promote the benefits that the project will bring. The sponsor leads the project through the engagement or selection process until formally authorized, and plays a significant role in the development of the initial scope and charter.

For issues that are beyond the control of the project manager, the sponsor serves as an escalation path. The sponsor may also be involved in other important issues such as authorizing changes in scope, phase-end reviews, and go/no-go decisions when risks are particularly high (PMI, 2008, p. 25).

In dissecting this definition we can extract the following responsibilities of a sponsor:

  • Champion the project
  • Lead the project through the engagement or selection process until formally authorized
  • Provide a significant role in the development of the initial scope and charter
  • Serve as an escalation path
  • Authorize changes in scope
  • Provide go/no-go decisions.

In comparing the activities of hosting a wedding we can compare the similarities in responsibilities. (Exhibit 1)

Similarities of Responsibility

Exhibit 1 – Similarities of Responsibility

This comparison is provided as a means to understand how the principles of project sponsorship are not unique from traditional definitions of sponsor. In making this comparison we can better understand what role a project sponsor plays in our project. Has your project sponsor ever hosted a big event, an exchange student, or supported a local sports team? Chances are that they have and therefore they may be able to understand their project sponsorship role better by discussing those similar events.

The Qualities of a Great Sponsor

The vast majority of workers and managers want to excel at their jobs. For these people, it is not a lack of desire, but rather a lack of understanding that leads to mediocrity. In addition to understanding the sponsor role, sponsors need information on what it takes to be great! Brenda Kerton (2010) describes great sponsorship in her blog. According to Kerton, qualities of greatness include:

  • Clear understanding and definite dissatisfaction with the current state
  • Clear sense of the future direction without preconceived notions of the final solution
  • Active in risk management
  • Makes the right decisions
  • Willingness to serve the project and the project team
  • Expects results and is willing to pay for them
  • Acknowledges results.

Project managers have the capacity to help make their sponsors be great. Providing this assistance improves the collaborative relationship of the project manager and sponsor, reduces risk to the project, increases opportunity for success, and contributes to a positive morale from the project team. It is in our best interest to help them provide great leadership for the project. To achieve this:

  • Help to ensure the business case and/or project charter adequately describes the business problem and opportunity that the project is expected to address.
  • Elicit the sponsor's vision of what the end result will look like once the project is implemented. Help steer them away from specific solutions by guiding them to leave the door open for solutions that may better help them achieve the goal.
  • Involve the sponsor in risk management. Elicit information from the sponsor on risks or concerns they have are or may be hearing from their peers and discuss risks the project team has identified, helping to quantify risks and develop mitigation plans.
  • Involve the sponsor when there is a tough decision to be made. Many times, decisions outside of the project manager or project team's authority or area of expertise arise. Prepare an analysis of options and related impacts, along with a recommendation, and present to your sponsor to make the final decision. Do not bring a problem to the sponsor without first having thought of recommended actions or you may be perceived as complaining. Be candid that you need a decision. Exhibit 1 provides some useful information on decision-making.
  • Let the sponsor know what they can do to positively contribute to the project. Invite them to key meetings and celebrations; let them know when the team would benefit from an informal drop in. Make sure your sponsor is aware of project barriers or needs that they may help resolve.
  • Find out how your project sponsor measures success and provide them the information to demonstrate this. Let your project team know how the project is being measured and encourage their input in ways to communicate progress. When things outside of your control affect the progress, have candid conversations with your sponsor and negotiate budget, staffing, or schedule changes to keep things on track. (See 10 Rules of Negotiating by Randall Englund (2010) for additional tips.)
  • Make sure your sponsor knows the successes of the project and the project team members. Provide the opportunity for the sponsor to publicly acknowledge these successes and the team members.
The Marine Corps 70% Solution (Useem, 2006)

Exhibit 2 – The Marine Corps 70% Solution (Useem, 2006)

Sponsor Commitments

In addition to understanding the roles, responsibilities, and qualities of great sponsors, sponsors need to understand what to expect in time and other commitments in taking on the role. While projects will vary in time needed by the project sponsor, the sponsor should be prepared to commit to the following time commitments.

Face-to-Face Time

Project sponsors should be willing to commit to frequent face-to-face discussions. At least 30 minutes at regular intervals will be needed to have a conversation on the current status of the project, emerging risks, and current issues. Most projects would benefit from having this time blocked at least once per week. Some smaller, lower risk projects may be less frequent, either once or twice a month. Do not make the mistake of thinking that a lack of response to emailed status reports means project satisfaction. In reality, it meant that the project sponsor was either not reading or not understanding what the status report was telling her. The only way to ensure the communication was received as intended is to have a dialog to confirm understanding.

Plan for Emergent Discussions

There will be times in your project when it is appropriate to notify your sponsor of an issue, risk, or barrier immediately. Discuss your sponsor's preference for notification of such items in advance. Will email suffice? Is an unannounced visit to their office desired? Are they willing to delay notification to provide time for information gathering and analysis first? Do they want notification at any hour and how? The answers to these questions will vary by sponsor, depending on their management style and capacity. By having the discussion in advance, you will be aware of the best method to get their attention and set the expectation for both and that if the “emergent discussion” strategy is used, the discussion item needs immediate attention.

Respond Within 24 Hours

Follow-on to the emergent discussion is setting expectations on sponsor response. If an item is urgent, it is likely to put your project schedule at risk. Delay in response has a high risk of delaying items on the critical path. Acknowledgment of this risk should be included in your “emergency discussion” strategy. The sponsor likely has many fires going on that are not related to your project. You will help your sponsor prioritize their tasks by setting in advance the expectation that a quick response will be needed. There will be times when the sponsor is unable to provide a specific response within 24 hours but should be able to provide an estimate on when it will be coming. Include an item in your schedule for this response and indicate it as a predecessor to any needed tasks to help understand the impact and communicate this to the sponsor.

Prepare to Reprioritize

In rare occasions your project sponsor will need reprioritize to give your project the highest level of attention. In one example, a project was experiencing significant contract issues with a vendor and subcontractor. Deliverables were late, and once delivered, did not meet expectations. There came a point in the project where it was evident that the project schedule and budget could not be met. This project was a multi-agency, public project with many agency executives on the steering committee. In this case, the steering committee members decided to spend a significant amount of time during a week together in one room to review the facts of the situation, the potential outcomes, and jointly decide the fate of the project. The project was ultimately canceled and the vendor found in breach of contract. While this example demonstrates the extreme, it is important that your project sponsor is aware of and accepts the risk that other priorities may need to be put on hold.

The Right Level of Involvement

There is a delicate balance in finding the optimum level of involvement of project sponsors. The role suggests supporting the project, project manager, and team at a leadership level. It does not suggest that the project sponsor is a “super project manager.” The best leaders trust those that they recruited to have a greater level of expertise than they do in areas they were charged with leading. The goal is to create a balance where the project sponsor provides leadership and support without devaluing the work of project team members. Some examples:

Levels of Involvement

Exhibit 3 – Levels of Involvement

Work with your project sponsor so that they understand the level of involvement that will create the best environment for project success. Be candid if their actions are impacting the environment or morale using specific examples of actions and impacts. Remember and discuss the mutual goal of project success.

Steering Committees and Multiple Sponsors

This paper has explored, at length, needs and strategies for effective project sponsorship. Further discussion is required to understand special circumstances when the project has a steering committee or multiple sponsors to facilitate extended collaboration.

Steering Committees

The roles and responsibilities of a steering committee are generally not well documented or understood. Why does the project have a steering committee? What is their responsibility and authority? What value does the steering committee bring to the project? Again, we can look at a comparable organized structure that has been around for many years to help gain some answers, the board of directors.

Organizational Structure with a Board of Directors

Exhibit 4 –
Organizational Structure with a Board of Directors

Project Governance with a Steering Committee

Exhibit 5 –
Project Governance with a Steering Committee

We can see the potential role and authority of the steering committee when comparing to the structure of an organization with a board of directors. The steering committee is not in the direct chain of command to the project manager, but does have a consulting role to the project sponsor. From here, we can draw the conclusion that the project sponsor is accountable to the steering committee, just as the chairman of the board is accountable to the board of directors. The project sponsor may also delegate communication and work activities to the project manager. In some large projects, there may be an interim role of project director who is delegated to coordinate activities and decisions between the project manager and project sponsor. Regardless of delegation, it is the project sponsor who is ultimately responsible for ensuring the inclusion and satisfaction of steering committee members. A board of directors may vote to replace a chairman of the board. It is an unlikely, yet realistic, idea that a steering committee may also lobby for the replacement of a project sponsor given the proper circumstances (and level of the project sponsor in their organization).

The steering committee should include a diverse group of executives in insight into and impact from the project. Steering committee members for a technology project will include top executives in technology, the business unit of the project, marketing, and customer organizations critical to the project success. Having the top influencers and decision-makers in these areas is what will bring value to the functions of the steering committee. The steering committee should not include end users, but rather their management, who will approve changes in process and policy that may be a byproduct of the implementation of the project results.

The steering committee should be formed to provide the following functions for a project.

Provide Direction

A steering committee made up of a diverse group of high level stakeholders will provide additional information and context of what the greater community will define a successful project. A project sponsor may be limited in their exposure and rely on this input to validate and “steer” the direction the project is taking. The best managed and implemented project will not be seen as a success to external stakeholders if they do not see the value produced as a result. A well-appointed steering committee will mitigate the risk of a project not producing a return on investment.

Empowerment

The steering committee empowers the project sponsor to make decisions on behalf of the project and the project manager to execute the project in an effective manner. The steering committee is not close enough to the project, the organization, or processes to provide specific input or guidance. Rather, they provide expectations of results that the project sponsor and project manager can manage to.

Control

Sound control measures are needed to demonstrate progress and success to the steering committee. While they do not dictate how something should be done, they will require controls be in place to monitor and verify the progress. The steering committee will look toward control measures identified to ensure the project is proceeding as expected. This will include schedule performance, budget performance, and review of final work products critical to downstream stages of the project. Steering committee members will offer assistance or guidance if something is not on track. The control measure will help them identify when this assistance is needed.

Decision-Making

Participation in the decision-making process will help ensure that any major decision has been explored from many different angles. The steering committee is made up of a diverse group of executives that have different information and perspectives, any of which may be the key to making the best decision. This may include participation in vendor selection, finalizing project scope, negotiating budget, and identification of key staff that will provide benefit to the project.

Multiple Sponsors

At times there is more than one person assigned to sponsor a project. This may occur when different stakeholder groups have equal stake in the project. This creates a great risk to the project in being able to satisfy the needs of each sponsor. The first step in mitigating this risk is to acknowledge and embrace the different interests of each. When you, the sponsors, and the project team understand the interest and vision of each individual sponsor you can better plan for how to meet the needs of all. This will also provide information that may be crucial when tough decisions need to be made. Understanding the different interests up front will enable understanding and empathy of each position and greatly improve the negotiation process.

Strategies in working with multiple sponsors include:

Develop a Joint Vision Statement

Once all the differences in interests and goals have been understood, you can begin to develop a vision statement with the sponsors that will satisfy all. Given the perspectives of each, what does the successful conclusion of the project look like? Getting all sponsors to participate in the development, and approval of the vision statement will result in a mantra that can be referred to in times of uncertainly and doubt. This vision statement will also serve as a reminder to each of your project sponsors when collaboration begins to decline.

Identify “Go-To” Sponsor

One of the biggest challenges in the workplace today, especially in projects, is having multiple bosses. Discuss concerns and strategies with all project sponsors to help alleviate the challenge. Having a “go to” project sponsor will allow efficiency in project communications. All project sponsors have the same vision for the project; help them organize to reduce the risk of impacting the project with delays in decision making or communications. While you will communicate status and issues to all, one person to expect direction back from will avoid mishaps that commonly occur when there is no clear indication of who is in charge.

The “Go-To” Person Is Responsible for Communicating with or Delegating to Other Sponsors

Be clear on the role of the “go-to” project sponsor. The goal is to reduce the time to communicate, get decisions, and resolve issues as well as have a definitive response to any of these. If the “go-to” project sponsor is delegating these activities to you, the risk of project delays is not mitigated. The relationship of the sponsors should guide the “go-to” sponsor on when to consult or include the other sponsors. By identifying a “go-to,” the other sponsors have instilled trust in this person to ensure their needs are meat and that they are consulted as necessary.

Agree to Sponsors’ Level of Participation

While the “go-to” sponsor is identified as a resource to directly support the project, it is important to understand the desired level of participation from the additional sponsors to aid in communication and ensure satisfaction with the project. Will the other sponsors want to participate in the team kickoff or celebrations? Will the other sponsors want to provide input to the lessons learned? Will the others sponsors want to review critical work product to provide input? How often do you meet with all sponsors and what information needs to be provided? Talk these and similar items through to aid in developing your communication plan. The “go-to” sponsor may be the one that you receive direction from, but this does not negate your responsibility in keeping the other sponsors informed and engaged.

Agree on a Clear Decision-Making Process

A clear decision-making process between the sponsors must be agreed to and documented. The project manager will need to ensure that it is being followed as agreed. This documented agreement will serve as a reminder and guide as issues arise and decisions need to be made. What is required of the project manager in facilitating the decision? Who is responsible for providing information to support the decision-making? How will the decision and background be documented for reference and the project archives? How will decisions be communicated to impacted stakeholders? Getting this planned ahead of time will help to prevent decisions being made without appropriate input and getting lost in communication.

Document a “Resolution Plan” Just In Case

There is always a risk that something goes wrong with the sponsors. A decision could be made that not all agree to, vital information may be missed, or a sponsor could feel they have not been provided the opportunity and authority they expected. Talk with the sponsors about what could go wrong and get them to agree the actions that you should take in this event. What commitments are they willing to make to each other? Who should facilitate conflict resolution? How will unresolved items be escalated and to whom? Again, the goal is to agree to actions to take before it is needed to minimize the impact to the project if there is a conflict.

Conclusion

Throughout this paper I have provided strategies for the project manager to create a collaborative relationship with the project sponsor. I will conclude with an action plan of activities that will support establishing and maintaining this effective collaboration.

Understand the Sponsors Needs

  • Ask the sponsor for their vision of the project and how they will define project success once it is implemented
  • Ask the sponsor what risks and barriers they find most concerning and why
  • Ask the sponsor who internal or external to the organization has the biggest stake in the project and why
  • Ask the sponsor to describe their communication preferences and management style

Educate the Sponsor

  • Recommend Project Sponsorship: Achieving Management Commitment for Project Success (Englund & Bucero, 2006)
  • Ask them to read What Does Good Sponsorship Look Like? (Kerton, 2010)
  • Ask them to read How to Sponsor a Project (Neilson, 2009)
  • Give them a copy of this paper

Agree to Roles and Responsibilities

  • Ask for their assistance in completing a stakeholder matrix
  • Describe your needs and expectations from the project sponsor
  • Discuss and negotiate each of your roles and responsibilities in the project
  • Document roles and responsibilities

Communicate Throughout the Project Lifecycle

Initiating

  • Read the project business case and any other material available regarding the project
  • Draft a project charter and review with the sponsor
  • Negotiate the terms of the charter for scope, schedule, and budget
  • Formally accept the role of project manager

Planning

  • Develop, discuss, and gain acceptance to the communications plan (including RACI matrix)
  • Jointly plan the project kickoff meeting
  • Develop, discuss, and get approval for the high level project schedule and budget
  • Develop, discuss, and gain approval as needed for the remaining project management plans
  • Identify and negotiate resource needs

Executing

  • Jointly conduct project kickoff meeting
  • Frequently meet in person to discuss project status, successes, and concerns
  • Follow the communications plan to keep additional stakeholders informed
  • Participate in steering committee meetings (if conducted)
  • Share updates to the project schedule and budget as project needs are better known or it is otherwise impacted
  • Give the sponsor feedback on what is working well for the project team and what is not
  • Adjust roles and responsibilities as needed
  • Provide analysis, recommendations, and request sponsor decisions as needed

Monitoring and Controlling

  • Report progress performance
  • Ensure change management processes are followed
  • Keep sponsor informed of new or emergent risks and issues

Closing

  • Invite to share in team celebrations
  • Invite to participate in project retrospectives
  • Provide a post project implementation report summarizing the work, the results, and the lessons learned (what went well and what was challenged)

Englund, R. (2010). 10 rules of negotiating. [Web]. Retrieved from http://englundpmc.com/Ten%20Rules%20of%20Negotiating.pdf.

Englund, R., & Bucero, A. (2006). Project sponsorship: Achieving management commitment for project success. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Kerton, B. (2010, June 9). What does good sponsorship look like? [Web log message]. Retrieved from http://www.capabilityinsights.com/apps/blog/show/3980254-what-does-good-sponsorship-look-like.

Nielsen, D. (2009, October 22). How to sponsor a project. The Project Management Hut. Retrieved from http://www.pmhut.com/how-to-sponsor-a-project.

PMI. (2008). A guide to the project management body of knowledge (PMBOK® guide – fourth edition). Newtown Square, PA: Project Management Institute.

Useem, M. (2006). The go point: When it's time to decide: Knowing what to do and when to do it. New York, NY: The Crown Publishing Group.

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.

© 2011, Vicki M. James, PMP, CBAP
Originally published as a part of 2011 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Dallas, TX, USA

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