February 21, 2018

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Project management advice, tips, tools and recommended resources for existing and aspiring project managers.

Qualities of a Great Project Sponsor

By Kevin Lonergan

a great project sponsorWe have to think very carefully about which projects need sponsorship and which person should fulfil this important role. No one person can sponsor multiple projects effectively, at the same time. This article will reflect on what a Sponsor is and the qualities a project Sponsor need, to make him great in the role.

What is a Sponsor?

In this context, the Sponsor is not just the client, or maybe not even the client.  The term Sponsor is most commonly used when organisations are involved in significant change or business improvement projects. The Sponsor is usually someone senior in the same organisation as the Project Manager. Often someone who “owns” the project, can champion it amongst their peers and can be the first point of escalation when there are challenging issues to resolve.  Following the definition phase, the sponsor would not be involved on a day-to-day basis (that would be the PM).  Only on an exception basis.

When it is not obvious who a sponsor should be, it can be tricky to decide who should carry out this important role.

Qualities of an effective project sponsor (in no particular order)

  • Committed to the role: first and foremost they must commit the time to participate, especially in the shaping phase of the project. They cannot simply delegate all to the project manager (PM), no matter how experienced they are.  There will be events at the front end of the project, that should be led by the sponsor.
  • Owns the business case: they may not write many of the sections, but they must own this document. They certainly should be heavily involved in the drafting of the strategic elements of the business case, most especially the benefits that are expected to be achieved following delivery of the project.
  • Available to the project manager: they cannot be a non-existent figurehead. When the PM needs their time, they have got to make themselves available, even if this is just for a short call, initially.
  • Ability to articulate organisational strategy: this is crucial. The sponsor must be able to articulate the organisation’s strategy and the relationship it has with the project at hand.
  • Drives the shaping of the project: this is where the sponsor must participate and not over-delegate. There will be times when their active involvement is key to ensuring the project is defined successfully and that the PM has fully understood and is focused on delivering the real brief.
  • Stakeholder engagement and alignment: this can be a very challenging task and must not be left to the PM alone. There will be conflicting needs amongst stakeholders often, especially when an endeavour delivers change.  If this is so, the sponsor must participate and ensure that discussions are out in the open and resolved for the right reasons.
  • Resolve Enterprise issues: for example. There will be times when the priorities of key individuals across the organisation do not match those of the project. When their participation is essential and outside of the PMs ability to influence, the sponsor may well have to become involved.
  • Ability to make tough decisions: there will be times when tough and even unpopular decisions need to be made. A great sponsor will have the judgment to make the right call and share why.

Why does this role not always work?

It seems an obvious role to have for projects, but it does not always work.  Let’s look at a few reasons.

  • if any or many of the above are challenged, the effectiveness of this role will suffer, maybe a great deal.
  • to be effective you need to be a senior, sometimes very senior person.  That in itself comes with its own challenges, especially around participation.
  • many who are asked to do this role have never run or even worked on projects. If this is so, they will have a very steep learning curve and there is a real risk they will make poor judgments and decisions, especially in the early stages.

To ensure that the Sponsor is clear about his/her important role, it needs to be documented and agreed upfront at the start of any project so that the Sponsor will know what is expected to be really effective in the role.

About the Author:

Kevin Lonergan is a career long project management professional and works for PMIS Consulting. He coaches a wide variety of companies in many topics relating to improving project delivery. His experience all comes from the real world of delivering projects and introducing practices that make a real difference.

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