Strategies for project sponsorship

Introduction

There has been great progress in the training and development opportunities for project managers in the past decade. However, looking at the trends for challenged and failed projects over the same period have not shown significant improvement in project success.

Project Resolution results from CHAOS research for years 2002 to 2010

  2002 2004 2006 2008   2010
Successful 34% 29% 35% 32% 37%
Challenged 51% 53% 46% 44% 42%
Failed 15% 18% 19% 24% 21%

Source: CHAOS Manifesto 2012: The Year of the Executive Sponsor (Standish Group)

Some common reasons cited for challenged and failed projects include:

  • Unclear goals and business alignment
  • Scope changes
  • Staff capacity and skills
  • Unclear project requirements

One item that lands on every list is “lack of executive support.” Conduct a root-cause analysis on the other common reasons and you will find that executive support is a large factor in all of these areas. Project managers have authority only within the constraints provided by the project sponsor while the project sponsor retains the ultimate decision-making authority.

“The most important person in the project is the executive sponsor. The executive sponsor is ultimately responsible for the success and failure of the project.” (Standish Group, 2012)

Project sponsors are typically C-Level executives and managers whose expertise lies in the business that projects support. They become sponsors without sufficient experience or education in project management. This paper explores the challenges and prescribes strategies to empower the project manager to influence sponsors to provide the level of executive support that maximize the change of project success.

Sponsorship Today

When Peter Taylor, Ron Rosenhead, and I contracted to write Strategies for Project Sponsorship we started with a world-wide survey to get a clear understanding of the state of project sponsorship today. We found…

  • 85% of organizations had sponsors in place
  • 83% of organizations DO NOT train, support, or guide sponsors
  • 100% of respondents believed that having a good project sponsor was key to success.

In PMI's Pulse of the Profession (March 2013) we see that projects that have active sponsors had better rates of meeting goals, staying within budget and schedule, and experienced less scope creep and failures.

Project Management Institute, Inc., Pulse of the Profession™, March 2013

Source: Project Management Institute, Inc., Pulse of the Profession™, March 2013

“IT executives were asked what percentage of their projects’ executive sponsors know how to be good executive sponsors. Their owners indicate that only 33% of executive sponsors are considered good; therefore, 67% are not good executive sponsors.” (Standish Group, 2012)

Increased executive-level support is critical to improving the rate of project success.

Efforts to train project sponsors are often defeated based on the demands and time place in the sponsors’ other duties. We heard of one story in our research that a planned two-day course in project sponsorship was reduced to a one-half day course. When the day arrived, interruptions and distractions were so significant that the class ended early. Project managers need to be creative in how they educate the project sponsor.

Good Sponsorship

There are two aspects to what makes a good project sponsor. The first is a good technical understanding of project management best practices starting with the project sponsors role and responsibilities. The “Definitive Project Checklist” below provides information on what sponsors need to do but the sponsor will need further guidance on best practices in meeting these responsibilities.

       Definitive Project Checklist

  • Provides direction and guidance for strategies and initiatives
  • Works with the project manager to develop the project charter
  • Identifies and quantifies business benefits to be achieved by successful implementation of the project
  • Makes go/no-go decisions
  • Evaluates the project's success upon completion
  • Negotiates funding for the project
  • Actively participates in the initial project planning
  • Reviews and approves changes to plans, priorities, deliverables, schedule, and more
  • Identifies project steering committee members
  • Gains agreement among stakeholders when differences of opinion occur
  • Chairs the project steering committee
  • Assists the project when required (especially in an out-of-control situation) by exerting organizational authority and the ability to influence
  • Helps resolve interproject boundary issues
  • Supports the project manager in conflict resolution
  • Advises the project manager of protocols, political issues, and potential sensitivities
  • Makes the project visible within the organization
  • Encourages stakeholder involvement and builds and maintains their ongoing commitment through effective communication strategies

Source: Strategies for Project Sponsorship

The second factor of good project sponsorship comes from the sponsors abilities to lead. “Most effective leaders are alike in one crucial way: They all have a high degree of what has come to be known as emotional intelligence” (Coleman, 1998).

The Standish Group identified 50 Secrets to Being a Good Executive Sponsor (CHAOS Manifesto, 2012). A quick look at the top 10 supports the need for great leadership skill and emotional intelligence from our project sponsors.

  • Secret 1: Inspire
  • Secret 2: Know How the Solution Will Be Used
  • Secret 3: Understand the Project Management Process
  • Secret 4: Set Goals
  • Secret 5: Get the Right Project Resources
  • Secret 6: Promote Excellence
  • Secret 7: Understand Business Events
  • Secret 8: Communicate the Facts
  • Secret 9: Reward Outstanding Effort
  • Secret 10: Provide Clarity of Purpose

Bridging the Sponsorship Gap

The key to bridging the gap for better project sponsors is to empower the project manager to lead and influence the project sponsor in both the technical and leadership styles. The fact is that the project manager has more experience, education, and insights into what makes for successful project. Getting the project sponsor to appreciate this requires finesse, rapport, and trust. The following six strategies will help you, the project manager, and gain and keep the trust needed to influence your sponsor.

Do Your Homework

Just as you would not go on a job interview without first researching the company, you should not start working with a new sponsors before getting some background information on her. With advance information, you can better prepare for your early meetings and get a head start on project planning. Each project is unique in part because each has a different set of personalities involved. This starts with your project sponsor. A little legwork ahead of time can get you on the fast track to building needed rapport that will help you have a greater influence on your project sponsor.

Find your sponsor on LinkedIn to get some information on their education and professional background. Is there anything of interest to you personally? Being able to inquire and reference this information shows that you take an interest in their background. This may also bring out things that you have in common in which to begin forming a bond. Further, do they post or comment on articles or participate in LinkedIn groups. Again, this helps to find areas of commonality that will help speed the development of a genuine collaborative relationship.

Another bit of homework that will help get you off on the right track with your sponsor is to learn about the management and sponsorship styles. Have they sponsored projects in the organization before? Were the projects successful? What were their strengths and weaknesses? Talk with others that have worked with the sponsor to get some insights. This too will help in building rapport and fast track getting to a project plan that the sponsors will support.

Discuss Roles and Expectations

Your project sponsor does not have a “Project Sponsor Body of Knowledge.” She will need your help in understanding her role and outline what your expectations of each other will be throughout the project. See the Project Sponsor Checklist (Appendix 1) for a list of 17 project sponsor responsibilities. Review this list with your sponsor to gain agreement on how to meet each responsibility. There may be cases where the responsibility does not pertain given the specific project or the sponsor will be delegating the responsibility. That is okay. The key here is to discuss each item to agree to and document how to meet each responsibility.

Having this discussion prior to project planning will provide you great insights to developing a project plan that she can support. It will further reduce the risk of misunderstandings for meeting project needs.

Influence

All six recommendations in this paper are strategies for influencing your project sponsor. This heading refers to specific strategies for influencing others to take certain action.

  1. Stay focused on the common goal – the project
  2. Remember to communicate “what's in it for her”
  3. Appeal to her sense desire to excel at being a sponsor
  4. Don't be patronizing or condescending
  5. Never say “you should”

Build Trust Through Communication

Your goal is to be your sponsor's one trusted source of information. To accomplish this you need to be fully trustworthy. This means always communicating the true status, not hiding issues or concerns, being timely with your communication, and verifying the communication sent is received and understood as intended. Even for the simplest, most straightforward of project, I recommend that every project manager get 30 minutes on the sponsor's schedule at least once each month. You can only check understanding of project status when in a conversation, preferably face to face.

Recommend Solutions

Crucial conversations

Call to Action

Share and discuss the Sponsorship Checklist

Join the Project Sponsors group on LinkedIn

Try one new strategy each week

Coleman, Daniel. (2004). What Makes a Leader? Available online at http://hbr.org/2004/01/what-makes-a-leader

James, V., Rosenhead, R., & Taylor, P. (2013). Strategies for Project Sponsorship. Tysons Corner, VA: Management Concepts Press.

Kelly, Robert. (2013). Top 5 Reasons for Project Failure: An Aggregate View. Available online athttp://kellyprojectsolutions.com/top-5-reasons-projects-fail/

Project Management Institute, Inc. (2013, March). Pulse of the Profession™. Newtown Square, PA: Project Management Institute.

The Standish Group. (2012). Chaos Manifesto 2012: The Year of The Executive Sponsor. Boston: The Standish 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.

© 2013. Vicki M. James, PMP, CBAP
Originally published as part of the 2013 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – New Orleans, LA, USA

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