Five Keys to Project Sponsorship

A Five Minute Read

I have spent the better part of a decade coaching project managers as they define and plan their projects. Mostly it’s not the “blocking and tackling” of project management – estimating work projectseffort, scheduling deliverables, and the like – that ultimately limits their success. Forces deemed external to the project – the never-ending battle for resources, competition for management’s attention, and so on – frequently make the difference between burnishing or burning the project manager’s image.

When I see projects floundering, or project managers spending more time “herding cats”, I tend to look up, rather than down, the organization chart; most often, the critical factor missing is the effectiveness of the project’s sponsorship.

A common mistake is substituting “the project manager’s boss” for “project sponsor”. Sometimes that is appropriate, but not always. A project’s sponsor should be the person – as high in the organization as possible – who has put their authority behind the need for change (as they say, the executive with the most skin in the game). Due to the cross-functional, matrix-like nature of projects, the project manager may not necessarily be in that executive’s chain of command. This dotted-line relationship – whether explicit or implicit –  underscores the need for a clear project charter and clear lines of what effective sponsorship is all about.

There are five key tasks a project sponsor should accomplish over the life of the project, in order to ensure the project manager can succeed.

A Project Sponsor Makes Sure the Project Has Necessary Resources

Project managers work with the project team, and their managers, to confirm assignments, set expectations, monitor progress, and drive the work forward. Most of the time, these resources don’t officially report to the PM, which inevitably leads to conflict and confusion. The Project Sponsor offers triangulation, and has the credibility to negotiate at a higher level. The Sponsor is responsible for ensuring executive priorities are appropriately aligned behind the project.

Once a project manager determines what resources – financial, human, and otherwise – the project requires, the Sponsor should take an active role both to verify the need and to identify (and eventually remove) any roadblocks. A project’s success or failure rests on the quality of resources put into it; even the best of project managers sometimes needs an “invisible hand” to help put those resources in place.

A Project Sponsor Resolves Conflicts

This is a corollary to the above. Every project manager wants his or her project to be the most important since the “Create Smaller Pieces of Bread from This Larger Loaf” initiative of 1928. The hard truth is, every project simply can’t be Number One. Leaders need to appropriately allocate resources – human, capital, time, attention – based on higher strategic goals; Project Sponsors should have, and maintain, a holistic view of clearing_a_pathoverall priorities, and how the entire project portfolio matches up with them.

Other conflicts, from departments scheduling around each other to the simple sharing of basic information, often can only be most effectively resolved when the executives aligned with the projects, are also aligned with each other.

A Project Sponsor Understands Project Management

A Project Sponsor should be able to explain to any and all the “why” of a project: why it’s important, and what it hopes to accomplish. A Project Sponsor should also be able to communicate the “how” of a project, at two very different levels: How the project work will be done, and how the project will be managed.

The first refers to the deliverables and tasks on the project; a Project Sponsor shouldn’t have the entire Work Breakdown Structure committed to memory, but should be able to answer questions about what the project will do (and, more often than not, what it will not do). The second speaks to the process by which the project manager will lead the project. Regardless of the project methodology applied, the Sponsor needs to understand what that will be, and have an understanding of how and when project management tasks (e.g., scheduling, budgeting) will be completed. This avoids any confusion or conflict over how progress is viewed during the life of the project.

An effective project sponsor knows not only where the project is, but where it needs to go.

A Project Sponsor Asks Questions. Good Questions.

This goes beyond asking “Is everything OK?” or “Is everything on time?” (or worse: “Can’t you get this done faster?”) Open-ended, broad questions to gauge both progress and the project manager’s comfort level are key.

“What risks are there to the schedule?”, “How have you been able to engage resources?”, and “What can I do to assist?” are examples of questions that are open enough to invite broad, thoughtful responses.

More on other “Darn Good Questions a Sponsor Can Ask” soon…

A Project Sponsor Provides Good Feedback

Feedback needs to be specific and pinpointed: “Nice job” or “Work it out” provide no information to the project manager. The purpose of feedback is to either maintain an acceptable level of performance, or to help raise performance. It is not to chastise or punish a bad (or perceived bad) actor. To be effective, feedback should also include information about the impact of the project manager’s performance; being able to put one’s actions into perspective is key toward continuously improving performance.

Project managers have the responsibility and the authority to deliver results; the project sponsor creates an environment where that’s not only possible, but the norm.

It is indexdifficult enough for project managers to marshal resources, manage schedules, and motivate the masses. Having someone in the project’s corner, who possesses organizational savvy and managerial pull, is an undeniable asset; an effective project sponsor is that person. These five steps will help unsure the sponsor can effectively fill that role.

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