Project Management Institute

Project champions in the context of socio-political issues of project management

Strategic International Services, =La Jolla, CA 92037


This paper explains our findings on linking projects to the broader organization goals. The projects were not started as social experiments, but it was learned that unless you took care of the social issues, other problems would develop. Here we report our experiment and findings, as mentioned in the book Technology Scorecards: Aligning IT Investments with Business Performance, of what needs to be done to take care of the social issues in the chapter “Human Factors.” All aspects are examined and presented in light of what worked and what did not work in major global projects with multiple stakeholders. Three areas of human factors were of particular, impact since they were concerned with project management, project champions, and business case development. They were found to be the cornerstones of sociopolitical and socio-economic areas of the projects. Discussing all three of them is far beyond the scope of this paper so this paper will be limited solely to addressing the project champions.

Keywords: project management, project champions, business case


Project management used to be simply a technical subject matter concerned with schedules and budget, but not anymore. There is a growing awareness that this discipline is more than merely the line diagrams and cost. Academia and project management institutions are researching the socio-economic and socio-political aspects of project management. This author has been in the practice of this field for over 40 years. Lessons learned in the subject issues are covered in his recently published book (Bansal, 2009). In all the projects undertaken, improved business performance was the single critical success factor that was at the core of these initiatives. But when all the issues were addressed, it was found that special attention was given to socio-economic and socio-political aspects of project management. Reasons for project failure are shown in Table 1. From this table, one can discern that majority of the problems experienced in the field are due to “human factors,” of which project managers, project champions, business case, communications, training etc., are said to be the antidote. Just to mention without going into detail is the fact that a business case, as can be redefined as “justifying the justified,” is a case in socio-political aspects of organizational operations, as was observed. Details on it are given elsewhere (Bansal, 2009), as it is out of the scope of this paper.

Table 1: Causes of Project Failure (Bansal, 2009)

Reason of Failure %
User involvement 15.9
Executive support 13.9
Clear requirements 13.0
Proper planning 9.6
Realistic expectations 8.2
Smaller project milestones 7.7
Competent staff 7.2
Ownership 5.3
Clear vision and objectives 2.9
Hard-working and focused staff 2.4
All others 13.9

Project Champions

The project champion has been said to be the spark plug that starts the process. He or she is a catalyst, a facilitator, a person of high credibility with top executives and stakeholders. This person may conceive the initiative or be convinced of its merits by lieutenants and then come to personify the initiative. From then on, there is no stopping until the implementation succeeds through the post-audit stage.

In the actual practice of successful projects, there is always a champion. It is of utmost importance to have this person on board, as projects will cut through every department of the corporation. Without a champion on board—preferably from the start—lightweight personnel should think twice before embarking on such arduous journeys.

The champion can come from any area of the business. However, a high-level product or engineering person is the best fit for the job. If a top IT executive has enough passion, it could work, but this person must have the confidence and respect of the business community of the enterprise.

This section explores:

  • Who champions are
  • Essential characteristics of champions
    • Commitment/time,
    • Influence,
    • Proactive,
    • Relations,
    • Trust of senior management,
    • Power,
    • Rising star,
    • Big-picture guy, and
    • Team builder.
  • Roles they play
    • Advocacy, and
    • Roadblock removal
  • Why project champions succeed
    • Organizational belonging
    • Champion versus project manager
  • How to recruit champions
  • When to recruit a champion
  • Champion needs a sponsor

Who Are They?

Successful project champions are the catalysts who start the process and take it through to success. They are the change agents who cause the change to take place. They can come from any part of the organization. However, the higher they are the better will be their effectiveness. If a project's stakeholder can be a champion, the project will be well served. By definition, strong champions have these characteristics:

  • Personal and profession commitment to the endeavor;
  • Understanding of the larger process or activity that is being undertaken;
  • Trusted member of the campus community and the president;
  • Powerful; and
  • Keen interest in building and working through the planning or action team.

Essential Characteristics of Champions

The appropriate individual should fit the scope and range of impact as well as the visibility the project will have within the organization. A champion should exhibit these characteristics:

  • Commitment/time. The champion must be fully committed to the process at hand. As part of this commitment, the champion must have the time to accomplish the task. It is important to understand this point. At most institutions, champions often are the go-to people, the people who get things done. As a result, there is a strong temptation to keep heaping tasks on them until they collapse beneath the burden. Not only does this reduce their overall effectiveness, but it imperils the larger project that is being undertaken. It is essential that they have time to perform. They must be able to manage their own time for the project if the synergy with the project manager and the team has developed.
  • Influence. The individual needs to carry weight in organizational decision making. That is why most successful project champions are found in mid- to senior-level management.
  • Proactive. This person must be someone who will be a proactive initiator, a charming persuader, and diligent when actively pursuing project support within the organization.
  • Relations. Successful champions are skilled relationship managers and effective bridge builders.
  • Trust of senior management. The champion must be trusted by the entire customer community. Issues involving change, whether they are product life cycle management (PLM), marketing, strategic planning, or brand building, make people and the organizations they inhabit nervous. Any change initiative often involves issues related to budget, staffing, and even performance. Tensions sometimes may run high. A basic level of trust is essential.
  • Power. The champion must have power. There is no such thing as a weak champion. If the champion is given responsibility for leading an initiative, then he or she should be given the authority to get the job done. It is always a mistake to designate someone who is not a senior player as champion. He or she typically does not have the experience, the clout, or the staying power. Once again, the initiative may be in peril. I do not want to belabor the point, but I do want to repeat it: The champion must be powerful. There is a temptation—often a very strong one—to put an assistant of this or that in charge. This is almost always a mistake. Major initiatives cannot be led from below. If what you are doing does not warrant a true champion, you should rethink your overall strategy.
  • Rising star. Many successful champions are current employees whose careers are on the rise or who are already organizational leaders.
  • Big-picture person. The champion must have a general and conceptual understanding of what is happening and why. Champions work at altitudes. They understand the big picture of where they are and where they are going. They do not need to be the technical expert of the initiative, but they must know its strategic alignment with the corporate strategy and its strategic and tactical benefits. They must know and understand how the project will go through the realization process, at least, at a conceptual level.
  • Team builder. Finally, because champions work best through teams, the champion must be a team builder. As a team builder, the champion must:
    • Have a clear sense of the overall project goal(s);
    • Maintain a sense of urgency and direction;
    • Select team members by skills and skill potential, not personality. Skills of special value include technical, functional, problem solving, and interpersonal;
    • Set up clear rules of behavior. The most critical rules pertain to attendance, discussion, confidentiality, constructive confrontation, contributions, and reporting;
    • Challenge the group regularly with fresh ideas; and
    • Reward the team periodically.

Roles They Play

Project champions often provide assistance in two areas:

  1. Advocacy. The primary role of the project champion is to advocate and promote the benefits of pursuing the project. The champion actively seeks project support from management and other organizational leaders. The aim is to ensure that senior decision makers view the project as necessary.
  2. Roadblock removal. All projects run into barriers at some point. Whether it is project funding, resource allocation, or any of a number of other issues, the project champion is often able to grease the wheel to get the project moving again.

Why Project Champions Succeed

Projects thrive when two people take the time to talk, interact informally, and learn more about each other's perspectives. The best opportunity to exchange important information may be out of the office while sharing a meal, a beer, a ride, on the golf course, or on an airplane flight. At such informal encounters, information about the project and its benefits to the company and details about the new approach can be best-communicated and eventually lead to buy-in.

Champions can act as mentors. They can be grilled about competing opportunities or initiatives the company may be exploring or about the fit of your work with the overall corporate strategy. At these meetings, conceptual strategic alignment can take place, and the advocacy person is born who can learn to trust you, work as your ally or true partner, and listen well.

Organizational Belonging

Project champions can come from any part of the organization and any level. Generally, the higher their position, the more effective they will be. Their homeroom may, or may not, be the project organization, depending on the company preferences.

Champion vs. Project Manager

This is the most crucial issue of project organization with champions: Do not confuse the role of a project champion with that of the project manager. The project manager is also a project advocate; his or her focus is to plan, schedule, organize, and manage the execution of the project. The champion, however, may not be a member of the project team but will strive to help the project succeed.

If the project champion is not the project manager, when the project comes to an end, the champion should be thanked for his or her help in leading the project to its successful completion. No matter how they are thanked—by being taken out for lunch, acknowledged for their efforts in a company meeting, or in some other fashion—champions should know that the project recognizes and appreciates the role they played in its success.

How to Recruit a Champion

Once a champion is identified, work should begin to gain the person's support and enthusiasm. Project managers or team leaders can initiate this, or the champion may emerge. Hold meetings with the champion for candid discussion about project goals and objectives. Be sure to provide your champion with the opportunity to suggest enhancements to the project plan even if the ideas do not bear a direct relationship to the champion's primary job functions.

When to Recruit a Champion

The best time to recruit a champion is during a project's definition phase. Not only does this provide the champion with a ground-up approach, but it also provides an opportunity to rally support from upper management early on.

The Champion Needs a Sponsor

Even champions need the helping hand of someone in the organization who is more powerful than they are and is willing to use that power to move things along. Like the champion, the sponsor must be personally committed to the success of the undertaking. However, the champion is seldom involved in the day-to-day business. In almost all cases, the sponsor is someone more senior in the organization than the champion is—the company president or a major stakeholder. The sponsor clears the way, lends political and budgetary support, and makes tough decisions that are above the champion's pay grade. The sponsor is an advocate, not a meddler.

Case Example: Boston Technology Highway Route 128 Company

The next example compares and contrasts the concepts about champions just discussed. In this example, I was involved as the champion and project director. This case is from the Boston technology highway Route 128 company's New Bedford, MA, facility, where it made all the negative film used to produce a film pack that would go in an instant camera.

Who are They (CHAMPIONS)?

This author was hired by the company to lead a process control systems group. The environment for IT and automation was not conducive to any megaproject because earlier efforts undertaken by the company had failed.

However, due to my passion for creative and state-of-the-art work in advanced manufacturing, I was not satisfied with the status quo. So I developed a strategy blueprint for the entire operation, singlehandedly, without much support from my group. The proposal and details were reviewed by the company's senior management and eventually were blessed by the board.

A key point to mention is that I emerged as a champion; I was not appointed by the management but was accepted in the role of the champion. I continued as the project director as well.

Essential Characteristics of Champions

•  Commitment/time. As far as time goes, bosses did not control my time. I was a responsible member of the management team and as such, in the fine tradition of the Boston technology highway Route 128 company, was allowed to manage my own time. However, the key decision I made was to organize and delegate day-to-day management duties within my staff. Next, I dedicated with full fervor my time, attention, and energies to flesh up the strategy document that I had authored, as per the requirements of the senior management. I guided senior management as they reviewed the document and became comfortable with the ideas and concepts, and prepared them for the cognitive leap they were asked to take for this mega-initiative.

•  Influence. I grew in influence as the project progressed from a mere concept to a well-thought-out executable plan of action. Competing organization heads set up many roadblocks that I had to overcome. Ultimately, only one senior manager failed to agree to the project. The rest of the team was on board to support it and move forward. At this time, the executive sponsor challenged the dissenting senior manager to either flesh his objections beyond “I think” or just keep quiet and bless the project unanimously. Compare this situation with the first presentation that I made at the senior management meeting, when the boss caustically greeted me, saying, “He has a --------- automation project proposal that he wants your buy-in.” In this company, opinions had no place. Only objective and provable hypotheses were accepted. Without total influence and credible arguments, I would not have completed this megaproject successfully.

•  Proactiveness. I worked proactively. The project had become mine, and I had unflinching motivation and passion. I would go to any lengths to convince anyone, anytime on any aspect of the project.

•  Relations. The relationships with the entire senior management team were cordial but not personal. However, I made a place among them and was respected for my knowledge and motivation. I was considered the horse on which they were betting, and I might be the only one who would lead them to success. After this, I won the project from the board and execution began. There were no roadblocks from senior managers or others.

•  Trust of senior management. I enjoyed tremendous trust from senior management. However, it was not a blind trust. I faced strong questions and arguments all along, but full preparation and work with unflinching motivation was crucial to the continued trust. The trust situation was tested repeatedly over the course of the project, but solid and powerful arguments continued to build the trust.

•  Power. While deep knowledge of the concepts and thorough familiarity with the strategy were my real power bases, my executive sponsor was the real power that supported me. As a result, I overcame any resistance from any quarter of the company amid full political pressures from various corporate groups, such as IT and engineering. I actually never lost a battle.

•  Rising star. I got promoted twice within five years. I was responsible for expanding, restructuring, and revitalizing the IT and automation efforts not only of my division but of the entire corporation through the computer review board.

•  Big-picture person. I truly was a big-picture person here. I conceived, justified, and sold the plant wide automation initiative through a business strategy blueprint document that I authored myself. However, I left the individual systems planning and implementation for the project teams and team managers.

•  Team builder. I built the team by expanding, restructuring, and merging several groups. I built the team through organizational development (OD) sessions and careful hiring. I was involved in every hire and one that I fired. Mentoring took place through one-on-one meetings, weekly project team meetings, and ad hoc issue resolution meetings. The core principles of my championship practice were involvement in problem resolution and passion for individual team members and the project's success.

Roles They Play

These issues have been covered before.

•  Champion vs. project manager. As mentioned, I was both the project champion and the project director. There were project managers, team leaders, and teams. Project managers reported to me in my role as project director. There were no problems due to this dual role. Actually, once there was an opportunity to separate the dual role, but no other project manager was found acceptable to the management team. Hence, I continued in my dual roles.

•  How to recruit champions. The circumstances surrounding this category have been described. I came into both roles based on my own efforts and passion.

•  Champion needs a sponsor. The need for an executive sponsor cannot be overemphasized. The secret of my success was the synergy between the executive sponsor and me. This person was the head of the film manufacturing facility, and as such was a major stakeholder in the project. He, along with the champion, wanted to run the business without the interference of the corporate IT, engineering, and other groups; so he fully cooperated with me. Whenever I approached him for help or an issue, he would discuss it thoroughly, convene all the right parties, and settle the issue objectively. The key behind this synergistic solution was that both he and I always had the same goal: a goal that would be beneficial to the film manufacturing facility.


Bansal, S. (2009). Technology scorecard: Aligning IT investments to business performance. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

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