An active project sponsor can have a huge impact on project success rates. We asked practitioners: What are your best tips for fostering project sponsor engagement?
“Scheduling regular meetings, actively monitoring sponsors’ involvement and asking ‘why’ at the first signs of disengagement are all extremely helpful in catching problems early so corrective steps can be taken.
In general, the biggest challenges are competing priorities. Some sponsors tend to believe that once the project kicks off they can move on to other priorities. During your regular communications, be brief and focus on how the project is meeting their business needs and what you need from them to continue this progress.
Sponsor engagement is also hard to maintain when a project becomes less of a business priority. The sponsor may be reluctant to scale back or even shut down a project when business priorities change. Frank discussions about the project, its goals and its place in the strategic direction of the business should happen as quickly as possible so resources can be diverted to other critical business needs.”
—Diane White, PMP, program manager, Verizon Communications Inc., a PMI Global Executive Council member, in Tampa, Florida, USA
Sleuth Out Motivations
“Project sponsors are interested in the outcomes a project can deliver. Get to know your sponsors and find out which project outcomes are most important to them. Then deliver short, sharp and crisp updates that highlight their cares. Showing you value a sponsor's time is essential to keeping him or her engaged and supportive. That said, every sponsor is different. Some want to be copied on all project communications and some don't. Some may want to go into details and some don't. Find out what works for them.”
—Sandeep Mathur, PMP, PgMP, senior manager, portfolio capacity management, Westpac Banking Corp., Sydney, Australia
Picture Perfect What a Strong Executive Sponsor Looks Like
For its Pulse of the Profession® In-Depth Report: Executive Sponsor Engagement— Top Driver of Project and Program Success, PMI surveyed more than 1,100 executive sponsors and project management professionals to get a clearer picture of the effects sponsors can have on projects. Some highlights:
MORE ISN’T ALWAYS BETTER
In general, having more than one sponsor makes no difference in project outcomes. However, sponsors say certain types of projects are more likely to succeed with multiple executive sponsors:
71% say projects with high levels of complexity
60% say projects with relatively high budgets
79% say projects intended to produce significant organizational change
LOUDER THAN WORDS
54% of project managers say the most important action a sponsor takes is removing roadblocks. 61% of sponsors agree.
Respondents ranked the top actions an ideal executive sponsor would frequently take:
1. Removing roadblocks
2. Helping the project team understand the alignment of the project or program to the organization's strategy
3. Championing the project or program
4. Adding resources when appropriate
5. Acting quickly to resolve issues
Only 11% of organizations report having executive sponsors who often enact all five.
At organizations with sponsors who frequently enact all five actions, 75% of projects meet goals and intent. At organizations where none of the actions are frequently taken by sponsors, 57% of projects meet goals and intent.
THE RIGHT STUFF
Sponsors who employ the following skills are considered most successful:
1. Influence on stakeholders
2. Ability to work across different stakeholder groups
5. Effective communication
Only 26% of organizations report having executive sponsors who often utilize all five of these skills.
At organizations with sponsors who frequently demonstrate these skills, 75% of projects meet goals and intent. At organizations where none of the skills are frequently demonstrated by sponsors, only 59% of projects meet goals and intent.
KNOWLEDGE IS POWER
Nine out of 10
organizations have executive sponsors who have at least a basic understanding of project and program management.
At organizations where sponsors have expert project management knowledge, 74% of projects meet goals. At organizations where sponsors have little or no project management knowledge, 58% of projects meet goals.
However, few organizations provide development for the role of executive sponsor:
COSTS OF POORLY ENGAGED SPONSORS
One in three unsuccessful projects fails to meet goals because of poorly engaged executive sponsors.
Define the Role
“When sponsors see themselves as a contributing member of the team, they understand their role in the successful delivery of the project and are much more invested overall. The biggest challenge is usually the sponsor's bandwidth or a lack of understanding about their role. They are often at the director or vice president level. They're really busy, and sometimes the project is low on their list of priorities. It can be difficult and time-consuming to get their attention and bring them to the conclusion that engaging with the team is key to moving the project forward.
If they don't understand the role, educate them. Explain that they might not get what they want from a project if they don't weigh in regularly. Show how their participation or lack thereof will impact the deliverables. That works most of the time.”
—Parris Farr, PMP, director, global project management, Stanley Healthcare, Boston, Massachusetts, USA
Want to learn more about how organizations benefit from active project sponsors? Read PMI's in-depth report at PMI.org/Pulse.
“I once worked with a project sponsor who told me openly at the outset that he wasn't committed to the project. (On the other hand, the CEO of our company was committed to it, as was I.) It was a big challenge to overcome, but I focused on communicating effectively with the sponsor to elicit interest.
I set up weekly meetings with the project sponsor, provided short summaries of the project's progress and continuously showed my strong commitment to the project's success. The turning point came when, in the middle of the project, he said, ‘I feel very comfortable with you and now believe in the project's success.’”
—Ipek Sahra Ozgüler, PMP, project portfolio manager, TAV IT, Istanbul, Turkey
Build Broad Support
“Early in my project management career, I worked on a project for a telecommunications company where the sponsor, a senior manager, traveled extensively and was rarely available for meetings or ad-hoc communications.
This was also true of his direct supervisor. As I completed the requirements specification, solution design and pilot testing stages, the sponsor and his director became increasingly preoccupied with other matters. Finally, both of them departed the client for another company and took along many management team members, just as a go/no-go decision for implementation was needed.
My lack of experience as a young project manager, especially in seeking broader engagement, rendered my efforts at resolution within the client's management structure ineffective. Eventually the consultancy with which I was employed simply closed the project without resolution.
If I were to revisit that situation today, I would first broaden my engagement points with the customer organization—not simply the sponsor's direct management, but deputies, assistants, peers in other groups, etc., any of whom might be an alternative path to the sponsor's ear and be able to assist in influencing the sponsor.”
—Ron Stacey, PMP, PMO manager, Americas and Asia Pacific customer delivery PMO, Landis+Gyr, Alpharetta, Georgia, USA
OVEREXTENDING LEADS TO UNDERPERFORMANCE
Executive sponsors report that they sponsor about three projects and programs at a time, spending an average of 34 hours per week on the projects and programs they sponsor.
But when the workload becomes too much, executive sponsors report these negative effects on projects and performance:
45% Report schedule delays and late delivery
33% Report inability to remove roadblocks
28% Report delays in decision-making
With manageable workloads come better project results.
Project outcomes by often overextended sponsors Project outcomes by rarely or never overextended sponsors