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The State of Project Sponsorship

The APM/Project round table debate "The state of project management" concluded that the "project management in the UK has come a long way in the last 30 years but ... there is still a long way to go". If the "state" of project sponsorship is not recognised then that will be a much longer, rougher journey, far less likely to reach its destination.

Sponsor is key to project success

Many, myself included, have argued for the key role that the Sponsor plays in ensuring project success. But reports and studies indicate that many projects continue to fail because of poor sponsorship.

In summary, the wrong project is done, the project fails to deliver, or what is delivered does not produce the desired outcomes.

Sponsorship is not receiving enough attention

Clearly the problems described have very serious consequences and ensuring good sponsorship should feature high on the agenda of any organisation. But although the litany of project failure is often recited, this root cause is only whispered by some. A major cause of project morbidity is well known, but the diagnosis is being systematically ignored. Compare the current level of investment made in the training of project managers with that for the training of project sponsors.

One reason for this lack of attention may be confusion as to what the role comprises and this is exacerbated by the various names given to it - Sponsor, Senior Responsible Owner, Executive, Project Owner, etc. But this cannot be the whole problem, as the Project Manager's role also suffers from alternative names - Project Director, Project Leader, etc. and, most damagingly, from being applied to those who have just attended a training course.

Another is the belief that any senior manager must have the skills and expertise required to be a Sponsor. Project working is different from "business as usual" and managers have usually been trained for the latter, but seniority can be a barrier to admitting any lack of expertise.

Whatever the reasons, the cure is to ensure that Sponsors understand their role and have sufficient motivation, skills and expertise to perform it.

Understanding the role

As with any profession, project management has built up its own jargon which to the uninitiated is unintelligible. Sponsors are rarely familiar with it, so describing their role in terms of "owning the business benefits" or "mapping project objectives against strategic aims" or even being "a key link to project governance" is unlikely to engage them. The Sponsor's role is best described using "sound bites" which encapsulate the key functions required of them:

Skills and expertise

Once the role is understood, the necessary skills and expertise follow: strategic understanding, the ability to define clear objectives, negotiation, communication, leadership, etc. Both training and mentoring can be used to develop these skills and the Project Manager plays their part in this.

Motivation is the stumbling block

Lack of understanding and insufficient skills can be rectified without too much difficulty. Descriptions of the role and appropriate training courses already exist. The problem of motivation remains.

Saying "Ensure that the Sponsor is sufficiently motivated" ranks alongside "Work harder" as helpful advice. Practical suggestions rather than theoretical answers or vague generalisations are needed.

What can I do if ...

The remainder of this article suggests possible responses to common sponsorship problems. They describe actions that a Project Manager can take but intervention from senior management is much more effective.

These are not intended as packaged solutions and unfortunate consequences could result if they are used as such. Rather, they should stimulate further thought before any action is taken.

...I don't have a Sponsor

...my Sponsor is too busy to worry about my project

This may mean that the project has the wrong Sponsor or that the Sponsor does not understand their role or that the project isn't worth doing.

...my Sponsor can't spare half a day a month

This means that being Sponsor is not even 2.5 per cent of their job so either they are the wrong Sponsor or the project isn't worth doing.

...my Sponsor doesn't do his job properly

...I have several Sponsors

This may be the same as "...I have no Sponsor" (see above) or there may be several individuals actively pulling in different directions.

But I can't do that!

Some of these suggestions may have made you wince. You may think that none of them would work in your organisation. Some may not and others will no doubt cause pain even with sensitive and thoughtful application ( Such as the compromise made by division of the role into SRO and Sponsor in the public sector), but better a little acute pain than the chronic pain of a failing project.

Project Managers should not underestimate their influence nor shirk their responsibility for the investment made by their organisation in their project. Senior managers similarly have a duty to ensure the success of their investments.

Poor sponsorship costs millions if not billions of pounds per year in failed projects. It must not be ignored.