I’ve been thinking a lot about sponsors over the last few weeks, particularly of the project variety. What prompted this was several encounters in a short space of time where I witnessed sponsors acting in inappropriate ways (or, in one instance, failing to act when they really should have).
That prompted me to develop a webinar on the topic (spoiler alert: it’s a little longer than the hour I intended). And apparently I still have something to say on the topic, because I’m writing these words now.
We’ve had project sponsors (by title) for as long as we’ve had project managers. Not that there haven’t been people in the role before, but we didn’t necessarily call them sponsors. Arguably the role of project sponsor has developed in parallel with—and as a foil to—the role of project manager. As the role of project management evolved and became defined, the role of project sponsor crystallized as well.
There’s an interesting consequence to that, in that you could look at the role of project sponsor as essentially being a response to “what project managers need.” Certainly, how the role should be practiced can best be interpreted by understanding how project management is explained, and reading between the lines of what project managers are advised to seek from their project sponsors.
What project managers need is part of it, of course. Although it’s probably worth noting that what project managers need may be somewhat different from what project managers want. But those aren’t the only needs that project sponsors are beholden to. So if we want to define really great project sponsorship, it’s worthwhile taking time to fully stake out the role and the expectations that are placed on the role.
To establish context for this, it’s helpful to quickly revisit a couple of essential principles. First, projects are about change; they exist to bring into being new capabilities and results. And project managers are responsible for coordinating the work of delivering that change. The questions that remain are: what change, and for who, and for what purpose. And that’s where the role of project sponsor emerges from the shadows.
The first need that the project sponsor responds to is the need of the organization. Usually, that’s because they’re in some executive or oversight position, where they’ve identified a need for which a project might be a solution. In a perfect world, realization of problem leads to formulation of solution which results in project to deliver said solution which is then adopted by the organization. In fact, while that sentence may seem to represent impeccable and straightforward logic, reality very often doesn’t work that way.
Projects happen for a variety of reasons. They get initiated in response to a number of drivers, only some of which are rooted in logic (and many of which are based in politics, ambition or competitive one-upmanship). We jump to solution, without really taking the time to understand problem. We have projects imposed and thrust upon us, rather than conceiving and developing them ourselves. And project sponsors often have project thrust upon them, also. They may less initiate than be responsible for delivering on someone else’s ambition.
While all of the above are true and reflective of how projects often to come to life, that doesn’t change the project sponsor’s obligation to the organization. Meaning that the first question is to understand what the project is actually designed to do. Even if it’s an after-the-fact excavation, unearthing the underlying problems and evaluating the reasonableness (and attainability) of the solution is essential. Projects can only solve problems that are understood. It’s still irresponsible to keep driving towards a predetermined solution just because no one took the time to fully understand the problem at the outset.
Wrapped up in the understanding of problem, of course, is the exploration of *why* it’s a problem. We need to understand how the problem shows up. We need to understand the consequences of the problem, and the impacts of successfully resolving it. There’s also the question of whether what the project has been charged with delivering is actually an appropriate response. To what extent does the solution we start with represent an appropriate—and viable—way of delivering on the result?
Regardless of whether these questions were asked at the outset, they still need to be addressed and responded to for any project that is going to be successful in delivering on its goals. And in particular, they need to be understood by the project sponsor if they are going to be successful in fulfilling their role. Without knowing what the project is for, why it exists, what it is to do and the value of realizing that result, it’s impossible to make meaningful and appropriate decisions over the life of a project. Although it’s possible this may actually explain a great deal of real world behaviour.
The second need that project sponsors must attend to is the need of the change. And this is a whole separate dynamic—with very different political and logical drivers underlying it. It’s the need of the change that brings us to the whole messy, seething, personal, political and emotional cesspool that is organizational change management. Because no matter how logical or compelling a particular solution might be, it’s still different. And introducing different approaches requires corresponding shifts in behaviour, with corresponding perceived threats to competence, reputation, status, influence and possibly even gainful employment.
What’s telling about this is how innovations and changes are often perceived. At the outset, they are often actually supported. There is recognition and appreciation that the organization is doing something. That might be accompanied by assertions of “it’s about time we started working on that.” It’s when the innovations start demonstrating successes, even if only incrementally, that the problems begin. This is because the change is now becoming real, and it’s beginning to be perceived as a threat.
The role of project sponsor isn’t just about getting a project completed. It’s also about supporting, preparing for and guiding the change to the organization. Project sponsors are champions, advocates and spokespeople for the change and what they change represents.
They are responsible for demonstrating the value of the change, but also of promoting and shifting the behaviours necessary to ensure the change is realized. They own delivering on the promises made when the project was initiated (which is another reason for taking the time early on to understood and agree with them, or to manage expectations of what is possible and pragmatic). All of which is to say that project sponsors have a massive leadership role in presenting the change, arguing for it and in equal turns persuading and pushing the organization forward.
From here, we can get to the third need: the need of the project. We often think about this as where project sponsors start; it’s actually where they finish. Only if we’re clear on the needs of the organization and the needs of the change can we get to the needs of the project. Outcome, success, boundaries and ultimate value are all driven by everything else. So are the deliverables, the work, the schedule, the effort and the cost (not to mention the risks).
What this means is that project sponsors need to be organizational leader first, change leaders second and leaders of the project third. And they need to do well in all of these roles. This is where we come back to reality, because many project sponsors struggle with the project role, let alone anything else that they may be called upon to support.
I will always, with caution, remember the executive whose approach to project sponsorship was to agree on the statement of work with a consulting firm, and then wash their hands of the whole thing. Not to say that the consulting firm didn’t try; they made heroic efforts to make the system changes that they were hired to implement, they got it done on time and it arguably worked the way it was designed. But nothing was done to in any way support the organization using it. There was no awareness or communication. There was no familiarization with the system, let alone training in changes to policy, process or expectations. The closest thing that project had to change management was the memo the executive sent out saying that the system was ready, and everyone needed to start using it.
Not that every change (or every project sponsor) is that bad. But there are few brilliant examples of awesome project sponsor, even in this day and age. Every once in a while, one does show up, and they make a compelling case for the role. The challenge is that being a project sponsor requires boldness and commitment. It requires standing up and making a statement of intent, and then following through with the investment of political capital required to make the change happen.
A recent example that does stand out was an executive I worked with a few years ago. The project was a new strategic and corporate planning framework for an organization. The goal was to develop a comprehensive, defensible way of strategic planning that tied vision to objectives to budgets, and where the intent of the organization determined what happened (and what didn’t) in the coming years. For an organization that was used to only planning an annual budget, and that had minimal strategic focus, this was a significant change. It required a lot of work and effort to sell, and build support for, right to the top of the organization.
The executive responsible for the effort was clear about the purpose, the intent, and the reason. They fundamentally believed in the value that a new and more structured means of planning could support. And they put a great deal of their own reputation on the line to make it happen. The sponsor wasn’t just a sponsor of the project, but they were an on-going and persistent advocate of the change the project represented.
The sponsor kept their colleagues on the executive team honest about the direction and purpose, and defended the process when it came under attack. Predictably, that happened relatively early on, as early results began to be demonstrated. Equally particularly, the resistance came from the fact that priorities were no longer subject to executive fiat, and opportunities needed to be justified and defended if they were to ultimately be prioritized and funded. The change, while valuable, was a threat to the power base of the organization; particularly for senior executives that were used to operating with discretion and autonomy, and now found themselves operating on a collaborative and consensus-driven basis.
Being clear about the organizational outcomes and the change involved, in this example, made the actual oversight of the project much easier. In fact, it was virtually transparent. The focus was on the change, and why the change was necessary. The work, and assessment of the progress of that work, was a natural by-product. Because there was commitment to the results, the decisions that needed to be wrestled with, even though there were political consequences to the answers, were straightforward. The outcome pointed clearly to the right answer. Implementing the right answer might take work, but that was the price of delivering on the results. In that, this particular project sponsor never wavered.
It’s rare to get that kind of support. It’s awesome when it happens, but partly that’s because it’s such a refreshing change from what we become used to. Good project sponsorship is hard work. It takes effort, it takes commitment and it requires investing political capital in order to succeed. It’s also the most direct influence on whether, ultimately, projects succeed or fail.
Project teams can have all the talent in the world—and make all the effort possible to deliver a solution that works. It takes just one misguided decision by an uncaring or absentee sponsor to derail or undermine all of it. And with the support of a great sponsor, there is virtually nothing that can’t be accomplished.
One of my favourite expectations regarding project sponsorship came at the launch of a course I used to teach. It was one of the few formal training programs in how to be an executive sponsor. One of the participants summarized their goal in attending the program as “I want to learn to be the kind of sponsor that I wish I had when I was a project manager.” We need more of those.