Exploring the role of the executive sponsor

Terry Cooke-Davies
Human Systems International Limited

Lynn Crawford
ESC Lille, France and University of Technology, Sydney, Australia

J. Brian Hobbs
University of Quebec at Montreal, Canada

Les Labuschagne
University of Johannesburg, South Africa

Kaye Remington
University of Technology, Sydney, Australia

In this paper, we report on the first phase of an international research project exploring the role of the executive sponsor. Phase one comprises initial studies by five project investigators, each of whom has taken a deliberately different research approach. This paper compares and synthesizes the data from these studies. It also shows a remarkable consistency among the research findings. The Project Management Institute's (PMI) research program provided us with additional support as we used the results from this meta-study to design and interpret a qualitative exploration of the executive sponsor's project role.


The executive sponsor performs a vital role in garnering top management support for projects. Previous research studies have shown that this support is a key factor in project success (Baker, Murphy, & Fisher, 1988; Jiang, Klein, & Balloun, 1996; Lechler, 1998; Pinto & Slevin, 1988; Zimmerer & Yasin, 1998). Several researchers have also emphasized the necessity for a high level of sponsor involvement and commitment to the project (Cooke-Davies, 2002; Remington & Pollack, 2002) as well as the need for effective communication and the criticality of balancing social and procedural aspects of communication within organizations (Hobbs, 2002; Kerzner, 1994; KPMG, 1997).

Researchers generally assume that executive sponsors should hold high-level executive positions so that they can ensure the organization's commitment to providing the resources needed to complete the project and the senior management's appropriate level of attention to the project. Benjaminsen (2000) examined this idea in the context of the information technology (IT) industry, asserting that the presence of an executive sponsor is fundamental to achieving a successful project. Many other researchers (Jeffries & Robertson, 1999; Melymuka, 2004; Paton, 1997; Slater, 1998) support this and Smith (2003) goes so far as to have argued that project success is inversely related to the organizational level of the sponsor.

A case study in the IT industry (Muller & Turner, 2002) emphasized the importance of the softer project management skills in executive sponsorship of projects, with particular reference to the modes of communication. This emphasis is supported by other researchers (Black, 2004; Hall, Holt, & Purchase, 2003; Hartman & Ashrafi, 2002; Kapur, 1999), each of whom provided some degree of insight into the role that the executive sponsor plays across various disciplines.

Crawford and Brett (2001)—drawing on a literature review, a survey, and nine case studies—suggested that the project sponsor's role is ultimately determined by the nature of the organization and the project type. They identified the following potential aspects of the role, presented in descending order of importance, as identified by project managers:

  1. Responsible for budget allocation
  2. Political support for projects
  3. Consults with the project manager on project decisions
  4. Approves the project plan
  5. Determination of project objectives
  6. Makes major project decisions
  7. Ratifies decisions made by the project manager or team
  8. Finds resources for the project
  9. Responsible for the project's scope
  10. Responsible for issue management and risk management

In their study, Crawford and Brett (2001) identified the challenges to effective sponsorship, including recognition and definition of the sponsor role, provision of guidance and training for executive sponsors, the sponsor's acceptance of the role and the related role responsibilities, and the effect of changes to the executive sponsor role throughout the life of the project. These findings are supported by Whitten (2002).

Standards have been a preoccupation of professional project management associations for more than twenty years: Standards are often developed as a basis for assessing project managers. Although the executive sponsor plays an integral part in both organizational project management and project governance, these areas have only recently gained prominence in the literature on project management. Because of this, no standards assessing the project sponsor's role presently exist.

The PMI's PMBOK® Guide (Project Management Institute, 2004a) is largely written from the perspective of the project manager and the project team working on a single project. Project governance and the sponsor role are not this publication's primary focus. However, recent standards on related topics do contain information relevant to assessing the project sponsor's role. 1 A brief review of the 2004 update to the PMBOK® Guide revealed a number of references to the project sponsor role. These references provided an overview of the sponsor's role within the context of managing a single project, the stated scope of this standard.

The sponsor is also involved in organizational project management. PMI's Organizational Project Management Maturity Model (OPM3™) (Project Management Institute, 2003) addressed organizational project management but makes very few specific references to the project sponsor role. We could not find any specific references to the sponsor's role in text of OPM3™. We did, however, locate a few references within Appendix I, which focused on Program and Portfolio Management Process Models. These references were consistent with those found in PMI's PMBOK® Guide (Project Management Institute, 2004a).

The OPM3™ self-evaluation questionnaire does list one question—question number one—that specifically addresses the project sponsor role: “Are the sponsor and other stakeholders involved in setting a direction for the project that is in the interest of all stakeholders?” (Project Management Institute, 2003, p. 76). An exploration of OPM3™ (CD-ROM version) revealed that this first question is linked to the following four best practices, each of which is associated with underlying capabilities (Project Management Institute, 2003):

  • Determine project scope: Project manager and sponsor make decisions that determine project scope.
  • Establish strong sponsorship: Sponsors actively participate in supporting the project.
  • Consider stakeholder interests: The organization bases decisions on the interests of all its stakeholders.
  • Select projects based on organization's best interests: The organization selects projects taking into account the best interests of both the customer and the organization.

In July 2004, the Association for Project Management (APM) published a 13-page Web document entitled Directing Change: a guide to governance of project management (Association for Project Management, 2004); it addresses project sponsorship (section 4.2) and lists 11 key questions related to project sponsorship (p.9). None of the current standards are devoted to the role of the executive sponsor. The content of current standards does, however, provide a good starting point for a further elaboration of this important role.

Proposed Research: Underlying Hypotheses

The following seven hypotheses are based on a literature review performed by the five researchers involved in this study; these hypotheses are informed by the researchers’ experience and knowledge. These hypotheses drove this research on the role of the executive sponsor.

H1 Executive level support is an important factor in the successful delivery of projects.
H2 Executive sponsors provide a vital link between corporate strategy and realizing strategy through projects.
H3 Executive sponsor's role and accountabilities are defined and performed in relation to an organization's corporate and project governance frameworks.
H4 Effective performance of the executive sponsor role is moderated by the attitude, behavior, and level of commitment demonstrated by the individual performing the role.
H5 Relationship dynamics between the corporate executive, executive sponsor, and program and project managers affect project outcome.
H6 Effective executive sponsors understand their role and the dynamics of managing projects; they know that the way they exercise the former influences the latter.
H7 Defining the executive sponsor's role within the governance of project management must be responsive to an organization's context.

Preparatory Research

Each of the five studies described below—also summarized in Appendix 1—used a different methodology to test the seven hypotheses. We have analyzed the results against the seven hypotheses for the collaborative study. The work of Helm and Remington (2005a) and Cooke-Davies (2005) are the most advanced of the five studies.

Study 1: Effective Project Sponsorship Researchers: Jane Helm and Kaye Remington


This research attempted to identify the essential attributes contributing to effective project sponsorship, as recognized by a sampling of senior project managers, project directors, and project sponsors.


The sample was comprised of thirty in-depth interviews—one-to-two hours in duration; in some cases, follow-up interviews were also conducted. The thirty interviews involved four project sponsors, twenty-four project managers, and two project directors; these individuals worked for companies located in Australia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom (UK). The surveyed projects involved internal infrastructure projects that the sponsoring organizations deemed as medium-to-high complexity and medium-to-high risk (level 4 and above on a Likert scale of 1-7). The measure of complexity was based on the degree of clarity of project goals and goal paths as well as the propensity for project goals and goal paths to change during the project life cycle (Hirokawa & Orlitsky, 2001). Researchers interpreted risk as risk to the organization.


The original research design included a high proportion of sponsors as interviewees. Many project sponsors, however, declined to participate. As a result, the research team was forced to modify its research design. Incidentally, the executive sponsors who did agree to be interviewed were described by other interviewees as highly effective in their role. To encourage frank discussion, the researchers guaranteed anonymity to all interviewees and their organizations. The interviewer's approach focused on encouraging participants to recount their own lived experience rather than recite organizational or project management best practice. Each interview was coded, recorded, and transcribed; the transcriptions were then analyzed using proprietary text analysis software. Researchers also performed a detailed textual analysis of the transcripts. This combined approach enabled researchers to more effectively identify the themes arising from the interviews. Nine main themes emerged during the analysis.

Key findings

Participating project managers and directors described the themes that emerged from the interviews as useful or desirable attributes, as either present or absent in the style of sponsorship for each project in question. Those project sponsors who were interviewed were asked to describe how they defined the sponsor's role and how they believed that role contributed to a project's successful outcome. In all cases, each organization formally assigned to a senior executive the role of project sponsor. This study identified the ten most frequently cited attributes associated with the project sponsor ability to provide effective project support.

1. Appropriate seniority and power within the organization.

All respondents cited appropriate seniority as a fundamental requirement for effective project sponsorship; the level of seniority is commensurate with the importance of the project to the business. Respondents typically cited that the sponsor must have both direct access to an organizational decision-maker and political power within the organization that is appropriate to the project's importance.

2. Political knowledge of the organization and political savvy.

Sometimes expressed as political savvy, this attribute comprises a recurring theme, one that was mentioned by all but one respondent: Influencing key players in the business on behalf of the project. The study also showed that sponsors who mentor project managers need to possess a strong knowledge of the business itself, of its internal politics and its key players.

3. Ability and willingness to make connections between project and organization.

A majority of respondents also reported—as a corollary to political awareness—the ability and willingness to facilitate connections within the wider organization on behalf of the project. The project manager's attention is often focused on managing a project's day-to-day exigencies; project managers, therefore, rely on their sponsor to alert them to connections that might be important for the project.

4. Courage and willingness to battle with others on behalf of the project.

Several respondents cited the importance of courage and the willingness to make decisions, take risks, and battle with other senior players in the organization on behalf of the project. High priority projects often require rapid decision-making at a senior level; this enables project teams to meet project deadlines and to avoid the problems caused by delays in decision making.

5. Ability to motivate the team to deliver the vision.

This attribute was valued by a majority of respondents. They believed that without the sponsor's overt commitment, team motivation was very hard to maintain when the project team members were under pressure to deliver.

6. Provide ad hoc support to the project team.

Ad hoc support is closely connected with trust which, in turn, is linked with the willingness of the sponsor to foster a partnering relationship with the project manager. The sponsor's embrace of a partnering approach aligns with the project team's desire for project autonomy.

7. Excellent communication skills.

This category influences most of the other attributes. Qualities cited fall into two main groups: process and personal preference. There were some comments about the process of formal communication in the project. However, most comments concerned the quality of the informal communications and the degree to which informal communication was possible.

8. Personal compatibility with other key players.

This is an interesting theme as the interactions in a project sponsor/project manager relationship are necessarily specific to each pair of individuals. Nevertheless, it was one of the most frequently cited themes, being mentioned by all but one project manager. Most respondents mentioned that the personalities of the project sponsor and project manager had to be compatible. However, the desire for compatibility did not exclude the need to be challenged.

9. Ability and willingness to provide objectivity and challenge the project.

This is a surprising result: Many project managers admired sponsors who not only provided objectivity to the project but also actively challenged the project manager. There was a general consensus among all but two respondents that the sponsor did not require detailed project knowledge, in respect to both project management processes and technical expertise.

10. Ability to handle ambiguity.

Another very interesting outcome, one that other researchers should explore further, relates to the ability of the manager to handle ambiguity. The project managers who participated in the survey rated the ability to handle ambiguity as very important in performing their roles as project managers. This is particularly significant as the projects under investigation were all deemed to have levels of complexity and a risk level of 4 or above on a Likert scale of 1 through 7. Also interesting was the finding that twenty project managers perceived the project sponsor's tolerance for ambiguity as very low. The majority of project managers interviewed found that they had to simplify issues for the project sponsor, often to the point of masking complexities that might have benefited from discussion with the project sponsor.

Study 2: The Influence of the Executive Sponsor on Project Success Researcher: Terry Cooke-Davies


Project success is central to all discussions about managing projects—both explicitly and implicitly. Since the mid-1970s, much research has examined project success. During 2003 and 2004, Cooke-Davies (2004) used a form of meta-research to identify the factors that appear critical to project success—when assessed in different ways—as well as the different criteria that can be used to assess success. The research reported here provides empirical evidence that either confirms or denies the conclusions of that meta- research. It provides an understanding of the role of the project sponsor by identifying several project management practices that are critical to project success and that are largely or wholly influenced by the executive sponsor instead of the project manager.


The survey is in continual use, and fresh data is added periodically. The sample analyzed in this report consists of 168 valid data records at the project level, 117 at governance (sponsor) level, and 30 at organizational level. Respondents answering at a higher level generally answered at lower levels as well. The data was distributed to 121 individuals in the United States (US), 38 in the UK, and 9 in other countries. These individuals worked in a wide variety of industries and held diverse project-related positions: senior managers (12), project sponsors or members of governance committees (87), people responsible for project processes (19), project managers (31), and project team members (19). The results of this study were previously reported at two of PMI's 2005 Global Congresses, EMEA (Edinburgh, Scotland) (Cooke-Davies, 2005) and North America (Toronto, Canada) (Crawford & Cooke-Davies, 2005).


The researcher developed a self-scored questionnaire listing questions that probed the presence or the absence of specific capability areas at each level and the degree of success accomplished for each criterion at each level. Such a method is obviously imperfect: The sample is self-selected and may not represent all projects and all organizations; respondents are answering from the point of view of completed projects, which can lead to post-hoc bias in their answers (i.e., if the project was successful, we—the project team— must have possessed the right capabilities; if the project was a failure, then we lack the right capabilities). And because the questions were carefully selected from previous research, it was expected that many variables would correlate with others (high co-linearity).

The questionnaire listed 44 questions about capabilities: Twenty-one focused on the organizational level; ten on governance/sponsor; thirteen on the project level. Each question was presented in the form of a statement that is answered using a four-point Likert scale that ranges from Completely Untrue (1) to Completely True (4). The document listed an additional 21 questions about success achieved: Ten, organizational; six, governance/sponsor; and five, project. The answer to each question was divided into 4 bands (scored 1 to 4) with an unknown option. In general, a score of 3 implied a result in accordance with expectations, 4 with somewhat better, 2 with somewhat worse, and 1 with much worse. The conceptual design of the research is encapsulated in Figure 1.

Conceptual research design

Figure 1. Conceptual research design

Key findings

There is little to say at the highest of the three levels, in view of the small dataset (30 responses). Both other levels, however, provide very interesting results. At the governance or sponsor level, only 7% of all projects deliver 100% or more of the benefits expected, while more than two thirds deliver less than 75% of the expected benefits. And these figures apply only to those 75% of projects that are able to make an estimate. For the remaining 25%, the researchers were unable to assess the extent of benefits delivered. Sponsors, however, are not too dissatisfied with the projects results.

In terms of governance/sponsor capabilities, there is considerable variation between the worst (integrated financial systems)—which are more absent than present—and the best (goal clarity about projects and presence of a business case), which are more present than absent. Approximately 26% of the variation in success was attributed to a variation in the governance/sponsor capabilities. There is a clear correlation between the success achieved and the capabilities possessed.

But are all capabilities equally important? What should be the focus of a program to improve sponsor capability? That is where an additional form of analysis proves to be helpful. A technique known as Classification and Regression Trees can help researchers examine data when they are attempting to find the best predictor of a given result; in the case of this paper, these predictors included effectiveness (project success at the governance/sponsor level) and efficiency (project management success at the project level, using the classic measures of time, cost, scope, quality, and HSE). This method has the benefit not only of identifying which factor out of all those that correlate to success is the best predictor of success, but also of delving deeper into the data in search of the next best predictor. It can also give a quantitative prediction of the improvement in success that researchers can expect to find. The results for effectiveness are shown in Figure 2; for efficiency, in Figure 3.

Most significant predictors of effectiveness

Figure 2. Most significant predictors of effectiveness

Most significant predictors of efficiency

Figure 3. Most significant predictors of efficiency

All in all, of the nine capabilities that most strongly correlate to improved effectiveness (as measured by benefits delivered, technical performance achieved, and stakeholders satisfied) and improved efficiency (as measured by time, cost, scope, quality, and HSE), no fewer than five are dependent to a greater or lesser extent on the capabilities and efforts of the project sponsor. In terms of effectiveness, the sponsor is best positioned to perform three functions: Ensure that all strategic options are considered before the project is approved; ensure that the project is assured of receiving the required resources; and provide the project team with the authority needed to accomplish the projects goals. In terms of efficiency, the sponsor assures the quality of the business case on which the project is authorized and ensures that responsibility for realizing benefits rests with the right people in the organization.

Study 3: An Exploratory Investigation of Project Sponsor Competency Researcher: Brian Hobbs


This study attempted to improve the field's understanding of the competencies required of project sponsors and to identify the competencies calling for improvement.


The researcher examined fourteen mini-case studies.


The researcher interviewed each case's project sponsor, project manager, and other relevant stakeholders. He then prepared a case report for each case, using a standardized template. These reports were divided into two sections: narrative description of the project, the context, and the sponsorship relationship; and a questionnaire on sponsor competencies. The results reported here focus primarily on the sponsor competency questionnaire.

Sponsor characteristics

Helm and Remington (2005b) identified eight project sponsor characteristics that are key factors in performing this role effectively. The fourteen sponsors of the cases examined were evaluated against these eight characteristics. The researcher looked at each sponsor's current level of competency in relation to the eight characteristics. He then assessed each competency to determine which ones the sponsor would ideally manifest in the specific context of each case. A 7-point Likert scale was used to measure each competency.

The evaluation showed that the sponsor should—ideally—exhibit high competence in an area of relative importance. The eight competencies were thus placed in decreasing order of relative importance as shown below.

Sponsor competencies in decreasing order of importance

Figure 4. Sponsor competencies in decreasing order of importance

Interpreting this table is straightforward: The most important competencies are those of negotiation, collaboration, communication, and responsiveness. Financial knowledge and project management knowledge are also important, but less so. Creativity is least important.

Examining current competency levels—and comparing the current and the ideal competency levels—shows the areas where there is the greatest potential for improving current practice. In most cases, the current level of competency was either equal to or slightly lower than the ideal levels. In a significant number of cases, the current levels were seen as substantially lower than the ideal. The magnitude of the difference between current and ideal levels of competency can serve as a measure for pointing out areas of potential improvement. The table below shows the same set of competencies ordered in decreasing potential for improvement.

Areas with most potential for improvement in sponsor competency (deceasing order)

Figure 5. Areas with most potential for improvement in sponsor competency (deceasing order)

Many sponsors lack a project management background; many possess little knowledge or experience in the field. This is seen as the area with the greatest potential for improvement. Although project management knowledge is not the project sponsor's most critical competency, this lack shows that current competency levels leave much room for improvement.

This study also identified two other areas in which project sponsors can significantly improve: responsiveness and communication. Many of the project managers interviewed complained of their sponsor's lack of responsiveness. The study also showed that creativity is not only the least important competencies but also the area with less room for improvement. Creativity is not viewed as a critically important project sponsor competency. It may be the case that creativity is important but is not perceived as such. These, after all, are perceptual measures.

This study also found that more is not always better: In one case, the sponsor was seen as too flexible; in another, as too communicative. These are exceptions to the rule that show that sponsors have a very specific role that requires specific behaviors and that it is possible for the sponsor to over play their role by communicating too much or showing too much flexibility and not giving project managers and project teams the required direction and support they need. Overall, the results confirm the importance of the competencies identified by Helm and Remington (2005b), with the possible exception of creativity.

Key findings

The comparative analysis of the fourteen case studies supports the following tentative conclusions:

  • The sponsor role does vary in relation to the different phases of the project; sponsors are often heavily involved at the outset but less involved—and even unavailable—as the project unfolds.
  • Negotiation, communication, collaboration, and responsiveness are among the most important competencies of project sponsors.
  • Many project sponsors have little project management knowledge or experience; project personnel see this as a problem.
  • Sponsor interest and involvement in a project vary with the organization's stake in the project. Critically important projects receive much attention, while run-of-the-mill projects are often neglected. If a project becomes critical, it is likely to attract the sponsor's attention, who will then step in to make sure the problem is resolved and subsequently step out again once the problem is solved.
  • Sponsors are very busy people: The research observed no cases of micro-management. What was prevalent, however, was the lack of availability and responsiveness.

Study 4: Defining the Role of Project Sponsorship Based on Governance Requirements Researchers: Les Labuschagne and Elli Lechtman


This study examined the project sponsor—one working within a project-oriented organization—from a governance perspective. It involved three objectives:

  • Determining the importance of project sponsorship.
  • Detailing a model of the project sponsor's positioned within a project-oriented organization.
  • Developing control objectives for ensuring the project sponsor's compliance with existing governance frameworks.


This study does not involve a research sample. Rather, it analyzes the project sponsor's role from a governance perspective, using such governance documentation as the United States’ Sarbanes-Oxley Act (SOX) of 2002 and South Africa's King II report (King Committee on Corporate Governance, 2002).


Because few previous studies on this topic exist, the researchers used an exploratory research approach. Their aim was to develop hypotheses that would form the basis for further research.

Key findings

Objective 1

In recent times, nothing has undermined investor confidence—in corporate leaders, in corporate governance, and in the capital markets—more profoundly than the endless stream of corporate failures and misdeeds, disclosure lapses, accounting irregularities, and in the most disturbing instances, outright fraud and crime (Newquist & Russel, 2003). This has lead to legislation outlining corporate governance standards, legislation such as SOX and King II Report (King Committee on Corporate Governance, 2002). Weaver identified seven concerns in implementing SOX and King II within project-oriented organizations.

  • The delivery time for projects will need to be accurately predicted.
  • The cost of projects will need to be accurately estimated.
  • Proper risk assessments must manage normal fluctuations in project performance.
  • Effective monitoring and control systems will need to be in place to identify and predict trends and variances that assist in implementing corrective actions as needed.
  • Honesty and openness will be needed at all levels of the project planning and control systems. The best real estimate of cost and time needs to be in front of management, acknowledged and acted upon.
  • Organizations will need to recognize and accept performance that does not conform to plans at all times. Issues are acknowledged openly and honestly; however, organizations must develop the support and resources needed when applying corrective actions.
  • Internal systems, such as project offices (POs) supported by effective tools, will need to be developed with a high degree of sophistication. Project data is the foundation of much of the corporate reporting now mandated by SOX and King II Report (King Committee on Corporate Governance, 2002).

Objective 2

The project sponsor's activities can be grouped into the three categories depicted below.

Project sponsor relationships

Figure 6. Project sponsor relationships

The vertical-down relationship

Figure 7. The vertical-down relationship

This means that the project sponsor would require the project manager and team to perform their activities effectively and efficiently; the project manage and project team would, in turn, expect the same from their project sponsor.

The horizontal relationship

Figure 8. The horizontal relationship

The sponsor chairs the project steering committee and has a horizontal relationship with its members: The sponsor will require these individuals to perform those activities that directly impact a project but yet fall outside of the project sponsor's scope of expertise.

The vertical-up relationship

Figure 9. The vertical-up relationship

Project managers communicate to the project sponsors the business issues that are most relevant to the project and that directly affect the organization's objectives (those derived from the strategy) so that the project sponsor can then communicate this information to the organization's executive officers (chief executive officer, chief financial officer, chief information officer).

Objective 4

The researchers analyzed and synthesized the control objectives relevant to the project sponsor role. In doing so, they used two frameworks: the Control Objectives for Information and related Technology (COBIT) (Guldentops, 2004a; IT Governance Instituted, 2004) and the Association for Project Management's (APM) (2004). The researchers developed a new naming scheme for the consolidated control objectives; it is called Project Sponsor Control Objectives (PSCO). Figure 10 depicts this consolidation of similar control objectives from two frameworks.

Project sponsor control objectives derived from synthesis of COBIT and APM frameworks

Figure 10. Project sponsor control objectives derived from synthesis of COBIT and APM frameworks

As depicted in Figure 10 above, there are fifteen control objectives that the project sponsor has to meet in order for this position to effectively and efficiently ensure that the project—from its conception to its termination—achieves a successful outcome.

Study 5: Exploring the Role of the Project Sponsor Researchers: Coursework Master's Thesis research conducted by Marie-Dominique Alessandri, Kristell Le Garrec, and Edward Popelard of ESC Lille, France, under the direction of Lynn Crawford


This study examined four aspects that could advance the field's understanding of the project sponsor's role and the elements that project sponsors need to succeed.

  • The characteristics needed to hold a sponsor role
  • The different aspects of this role
  • The relationships with other major project stakeholders
  • The manner in which good project sponsorship influences project success.


This study examined 85 articles drawn from the field's literature review; it included papers relating to project sponsorship and project owners, project champions, and clients.


The researchers treated the selected literature as the study's raw data. To make sense of the data, the three researchers read and discussed the articles; each researcher then developed propositions from this data. For each article, the researchers prepared three different propositions; each perspective reflected information relevant to each individual and their understanding of the subject matter. As they progressed through the articles, the researchers gathered their propositions and then negotiated and sorted these into categories using the Affinity Diagram method (Brassard, 1989; Winchip, 2001). From their ongoing, weekly discussions, and from their individual perceptions and worldviews, the three researchers developed different propositions and made sense of these using the Affinity Diagram. From this, they negotiated and devised headings for six categories

In their final step, they constructed a model using the Interrelationship Digraph method (Sandras, 1996). The categories they developed through the Affinity Diagram method provided the basis for the Digraph. The three researchers brainstormed and debated the relationships between each of the categories. Working with the six categories they had identified they then used the following process to develop a model:

  • Arrows were drawn from the element that influences to the one influenced.
  • When two elements influence each other, the arrow was drawn to reflect the stronger influence. The arrows were then counted; those with the most outgoing arrows were identified as the root causes or drivers. Those with the most incoming arrows were listed as the key outcomes or results.

Key findings

The analysis resulted in agreement on six levels of categories that were considered relevant to effectively performing the project sponsor's role:

  • Top management support: Support from senior management teams, which are typically responsible for an organization's portfolio management.
  • Organizational fit: The compatibility between an individual's and an organization's values and mode of operation.
  • Standardization of project sponsorship: The degree to which organizational rules, policies, and standard operating procedures are formalized and followed (Jang & Lee, 1998). This includes the sharing of a common language and a basis for establishing performance measurement systems and for improving performance.
  • Communication: The process through which individuals exchange information by using a common system of symbols, signs, or behaviors. This includes timely and appropriate generation, collection, distribution, storage, retrieval, and disposition of project data.
  • Cooperation: The behavior of individuals working together in realizing a common goal.
  • Involvement of the project sponsor: The project sponsor's level of involvement as viewed in relation to their commitment to the project. The project sponsor must buy in to the project and use their powerbase authority—within the organization and around the project—to influence and create the project vision.

From the researchers’ discussion and debate of relevant literature emerged the following Interrelationship Digraph.

Interrelationship digraph showing agreed pattern of relationships

Figure 11. Interrelationship digraph showing agreed pattern of relationships

This model relates to the role of the project sponsor. It stresses the importance of top management support. It also identifies the two most important drivers (organizational fit and compatibility), the two enablers (communication and standardization, enhanced by top management support), and the key outcomes (cooperation and project sponsor involvement).

Reflection and Synthesis

These five preliminary studies serve as lenses to examine the seven hypotheses outlined earlier in this paper. These studies provide support for each hypothesis.

H1: Executive level support is an important factor in the successful delivery of projects.

  • Helm and Remington found that project managers believe that project success is affected by effective and ineffective sponsor performance.
  • Cooke-Davies identified the project management capabilities that characterize effective project sponsors and that align with successful project outcomes.
  • Alessandri, Le Garrec, and Popelard, under Crawford's direction, confirmed that obtaining top management support is a significant part of the sponsor's role

H2: Executive sponsors provide a vital link between corporate strategy and realizing strategy through projects.

  • Helm and Remington's conclusions explicitly confirm that the sponsor connects the project to the organization.
  • Hobbs concludes that the degree of sponsor involvement reflects the organization's stake in the project.
  • Cooke-Davies shows the vital role of the sponsor in obtaining resources for the project, granting authority to the project team and getting appropriate “owners” for the benefits that will flow once the project has delivered its product or service.

H3: Executive sponsor's role and accountabilities are defined and performed in relation to an organization's corporate and project governance frameworks.

  • Labuschagne and Lechtman identified the project sponsor's specific relationships within the corporate governance framework.
  • Hobbs suggested that one role played by the sponsor is as the governor of the project.
  • Alessandri, Le Garrec, and Popelard, under Crawford's direction, confirmed that standardization of the project sponsor role—an aspect of governance—supports effective sponsor performance.

H4: Effective performance of the executive sponsor role is moderated by the attitude, behavior, and level of commitment demonstrated by the individual performing the role.

  • Helm and Remington identified ten attributes of the project sponsor that project managers perceive as influential in determining how effectively the sponsors fulfill their role.
  • Hobbs showed that, in the opinion of project managers, many sponsors are handicapped in performing their role because of their lack of project management experience and knowledge.
  • Alessandri, Le Garrec, and Popelard, under Crawford's direction, developed a model to identify the interrelationships between those factors influencing the sponsor's performance, factors that include both cooperation and involvement.

H5: Relationship dynamics between the corporate executive, executive sponsor, and program and project managers affect project outcome.

  • Although not explicitly stated, Helm and Remington concluded that the attributes of effective sponsors strongly support this hypothesis by means of implication.
  • Hobbs demonstrated that the sponsor's relationships change during the course of the project life cycle.
  • Alessandri, Le Garrec, and Popelard, under Crawford's direction, identified communication, cooperation, and involvement as key sponsor activities that support this hypothesis.

H6: Effective executive sponsors understand their role and the dynamics of managing projects; they also know that the way they exercise the former influences the latter.

  • All five studies contained empirical data that strongly reinforced this hypothesis; Cooke-Davies indicated that the impact of this hypothesis can improve project results by 50% to 70%, depending on the criteria used for success.
  • Labuschagne and Lechtman identified significant theoretical support.
  • Alessandri, Le Garrec, and Popelard, under Crawford's direction, supported this hypothesis through the model they developed.

H7: Defining the executive sponsor's role within the governance of project management must be responsive to an organization's context.

  • Hobbs found that the sponsor's involvement reflects the organization's stake in the project; this suggests empirical evidence that organizations accept and understand this hypothesis.
  • Labuschagne and Lechtman demonstrated why this hypothesis is significant.


The preliminary findings outlined in this paper can guide the researchers as they interview participating project professionals during the main data-gathering stage, a research effort examining the executive sponsor's role that is supported by PMI's Research Program. The role of the executive sponsor is an important one, and the project management community should focus on understanding and supporting this role as it relates to the role played by project managers.


1. PMI's standards on program management and on both portfolio management were published in May 2006, after this paper was written. We, therefore, cannot comment on how these documents treat the project sponsor role.

Association for Project Management. (2004). Directing change: A guide to governance of project management. Retrieved April 17, 2005, from http://www.apm.org.uk/documentLibrary/97.pdf

Baker, B. N., Murphy, D. C., & Fisher, D. (1988). Factors affecting project success. In D. I. Cleland & W. R. King (Eds.), Project management handbook (2nd ed., pp. 902 – 919). New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold

Benjaminsen, H. H. (2000). 10 implementation lessons learned. Facilities Design & Management, 19(12), 33.

Black, R. (2004). Solid risk management is not a luxury, but a necessity. Computing Canada, 30(3), 22

Brassard, M. (1989) The memory jogger plus +. Methuen, MA: GOAL/QPC.

Cooke-Davies, T. (2002) The “real” success factors on projects. International Journal of Project Management, 20(3), 185 – 190.

Cooke-Davies, T. J. (2004) Project success. In P. W. G. Morris & J. K. Pinto (Eds.), The Wiley guide to managing projects (pp. 99 – 122). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

Cooke-Davies, T. J. (2005). The executive sponsor – The hinge upon which organisational project management maturity turns? Proceedings of PMI Global Congress 2005—EMEA, Edinburgh, Scotland [CD-ROM].

Crawford, L. H., & Brett C. (2001). Exploring the role of the project sponsor. Proceedings of the PMI New Zealand Annual Conference 2001, Wellington, New Zealand.

Crawford, L. H., & Cooke-Davies, T. J. (2005). Project governance: the pivotal role of the executive sponsor. Proceedings of PMI Global Congress 2005—North America, Toronto, Canada [CD-ROM].

Guldentops, E (2004). Governing information technology through COBIT. In W. Van Grembergen (Ed.), Strategies for information technology governance (chapter XI, pp. 269 – 309). Hershey, PA: Idea Group Publishing.

Hall, M., Holt, R., & Purchase, D. (2003). Project sponsors under new public management: Lessons from the frontline. International Journal of Project Management, 21(7), 495 – 502.

Hartman, F., & Ashrafi, R. A. (2002). Project management in the information systems and information technologies industries. Project Management Journal, 33(3), 5 – 16.

Helm, J., & Remington, K. (2005a). Effective project sponsorship. The evaluation of the role of the executive sponsor in complex infrastructure projects by senior project managers. Project Management Journal, 36(3), 51 – 61.

Helm, J., & Remington, K. (2005b). Adaptive habitus? Project managers’ evaluation of the role of the executive sponsor in complex projects. Euram. Retrieved from http://www.euram2005.de/site/5_program_1.html

Hirokawa, R. Y., & Orlitzky, M. (2001). To err is human, to correct for it divine. A meta-analysis of research testing the functional theory of group decision-making effectiveness. Small Group Research, 32(3), 313 – 341.

Hobbs, J. B. (2002). The strategic end of large infrastructure projects: A process of nesting governance. Project management research at the turn of the millennium: Proceedings of PMI Research Conference 2002, Seattle, WA, 41 – 53.

IT Governance Institute. (2004). IT control objectives for Sarbanes-Oxley: The importance of IT in the design, implementation and sustainability of internal control over disclosure and financial reporting. Retrieved April 2004, from http://www.itgi.org/template_ITGI.cfm?template=/ContentManagement/ContentDisplay.cfm&ContentID=25123

Jang, Y., & Lee, J. (1998). Factors influencing the success of management consulting projects. International Journal of Project Management, 16(2), 67 – 72.

Jeffries, S., & Robertson, S. (1999). The best laid plans? Proven ways to improve IT success. Apparel Industry Magazine, 60(8), 56 – 57.

Jiang, J. J., Klein, G., & Balloun, J. (1996). Ranking of system implementation success factors. Project Management Journal, 27(4), 49 – 53.

Kapur, G. K. (1999) Bad management is to blame for IT skills crunch. Computerworld, 33(12), 32.

Kerzner, H. (1994). The growth of modern project management. Project Management Journal, 25(2), 6 – 9.

King Committee on Corporate Governance. (2002). King report on corporate governance for South Africa (King II Report). Johannesburg, South Africa: Institute of Directors.

KPMG. (1997). What went wrong? Unsuccessful information technology projects. Retrieved March 19, 2002, from http://audit.kpmg.ca/vl/surveys/it-wrong.htm

Lechler, T. (1998). When it comes to project management, it's the people that matter: An empirical analysis of project management in Germany. In F. Hartman, G. Jergeas, & J. Thomas, (Eds.), IRNOP III - The nature and role of projects in the next 20 years: Research issues and problems (pp. 205 – 215). Calgary, Canada: Project Management Specialization, University of Calgary.

Melymuka, K. (2004). Surviving the sponsor exit. Computerworld, 38(7), 40.

Muller, R., & Turner, J. R. (2002). Communication between IT project manager and project sponsor in a buyer-seller relationship. Proceedings of PMI Research Conference 2002, Seattle, WA, 387 – 395.

Newquist, S. C., & Russell, M. B. (2003). Putting investors first: Real solutions for better corporate governance. Princeton, NJ: Bloomberg Press.

Paton, S. (1997). Capturing return on investment with workflow. Document World, 2(3), 30 – 31.

Pinto, J. K., & Slevin, D. P. (1988). Project success: Definitions and measurement techniques. Project Management Journal, 19(1) 67 – 72.

Project Management Institute. (2003). Organizational project management maturity model (OPM3™) knowledge foundation. Newtown Square, PA: Project Management Institute.

Project Management Institute. (2004a). A guide to the project management body of knowledge (PMBOK® guide). Newtown Square, PA: Project Management Institute.

Remington, K., & Pollack, J. (2002, June). Stakeholder management for project competence. Proceedings of 16th IPMA World Congress on Project Management, Berlin, Germany.

Sandras, W. A. J. (1996). Visions happen when you make them actionable with total quality control 2. Hospital Materiel Management Quarterly, 18(2), 32 – 40.

Slater, D. (1998). Business line backers. CIO, 11(11), 24 – 30.

Smith, M. E. (2003). Changing an organisation's culture: Correlates of success and failure. Leadership and Organization Development Journal, 24(5), 249 – 261.

Weaver, P (2005). Effective project governance – A cultural sea change. Proceedings of the PMI Global Congress 2005—Asia Pacific, Singapore [CD-ROM].

Whitten, N. (2002). Duties of the effective project sponsor. PM Network, 16(12), 16.

Winchip, S. M. (2001). Affinity and interrelationship digraph: A qualitative approach to identifying organizational issues in a graduate program - statistical data included. College Student Journal. Retrieved May 31, 2005, from http://www.findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m0FCR/is_2_35/ai_77399633/pg_8

Zimmerer, T. W., & Yasin, M. M. (1998). A leadership profile of American project managers. Project Management Journal, 29(1), 31 – 38.

Attributes Helm and Remington Cooke-Davies Hobbs Labuschagne and Lechtman Alessandri, Le Garrec, and Popelard, under Crawford's direction
Purpose of research To ascertain what project managers believe to be the essential attributes of effective sponsors. To identify which project management capabilities lead to project success. To throw light onto the role of the executive sponsor throughout the project life cycle. To position the project sponsor's role in an organization with regard to governance. To advance understanding of the project sponsor role and the elements needed for the role to be successful.
Sample 30 in-depth interviews in Australia, New Zealand, and UK. 168 respondents in USA and Europe: 30 at organization level; 117 at governance level; 168 at project level. 14 mini case studies involving US companies. None 85 papers on project sponsorship, project owners, champions, and the client.
Methodology Textual analysis of the results of the interviews. Self-scored questionnaire: 44 questions about capabilities, 21 questions about success accomplished. Interviews with 14 project sponsors following a predefined interview schema. Literature and construction of hypotheses for subsequent research. Sense making analysis of content of papers by 3 researchers, categorization and model building.
Key Findings The sponsor plays several key roles: Seniority and power;
political savvy; connect project to organization; courage and willingness to engage; ability to motivate; ad-hoc support to team; communication excellence; compatibility with key players; objective challenge; handle ambiguity.
The executive sponsor plays a crucial role in five key capabilities:
Reviewing strategic options; obtaining resources; granting authority to project team; assuring quality of business case; getting benefits owned in right place.
The sponsor's role changes throughout the project life cycle.

Many sponsors have little project management knowledge or experience.

Sponsor involvement reflects the organization's stake in the project.
Legislative changes about corporate governance impact project governance.

Sponsors have critical relationships upwards (to upper management), sideways (to project steering group) and downwards (to project team).

Sponsor has responsibilities concerning project benefits.

Guidelines for project governance increasingly specify the sponsor's responsibilities.
Identification of six elements necessary to effectiveness of project sponsor role:
Top management support; organizational fit; standardization of project sponsorship; communication; cooperation; involvement of the project sponsor.
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.

©2006 Project Management Institute



Related Content