HELP! I'm becoming a project sponsor... what do I need to do?

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In the literature on project management, the role of project sponsors seems to have appeared in the 70s. It is at this time that project management spread to all industries and activities instead of being limited to big construction projects, military and aeronautics. Certain companies then started to reorganize by project and it rapidly became apparent that there were not enough business leaders to directly lead all projects. These leaders had to rely on more operational project managers while keeping the role of the business sponsor as the person ultimately responsible for the project.

Being a project manager, becoming the sponsor of a project is like crossing the mirror. The PM who I am has very strong expectations (but nevertheless realistic) of his sponsor. If I were to become a sponsor, which would or should be my first concerns?

Certainly first of all to define precisely my role and expectations of the PM, in the same way as he or she will have expectations of what I should bring to the project. It is thus necessary to establish mutual trust between us based on clearly established roles and responsibilities, regular communications, and common rules.

Let us try to establish a few elements that will help better understand the sponsor’s role.

business champion, legitimacy

To perform successfully his role, the sponsor must be listened to and recognized by his peers in the business and by his management. It is therefore critical that I get in touch with all stakeholders of the project. I need to understand clearly their expectations of the project, their necessary level of involvement, and listen to their points of view. It will be particularly useful at this time to obtain access to their expert resources of the domain. And, also these discussions shall enable me to appreciate the problems to be addressed from the insiders’ view.

direction and support in decision-making

Here is one of my sponsor’s key roles. It is a matter of giving a direction and management support to the project manager. It is thus imperative that I have an excellent and very clear overall view of the objectives of the project and that I am able to articulate and to communicate these simply and effectively. And this for all the stakeholders: the project manager and his team of course, but also the management of my company, including or maybe even in particular towards those who seem less impacted by the project but have a large influence in the company (not always high-ranking individuals).

review and approve plans and deliverables

Beyond the adequacy of the deliverables and project plans to the concrete objectives of the project, the sponsor’s role is to improve these project’s deliverables and to approve them formally. The best sponsors that I've had as PM were those who had the capacity to see farther than the deliverables in themselves. They perceived early how these products would be welcomed according to the expectations of the many stakeholders. They anticipated the potential negative reactions to prevent these, often by modifications which may seem to be cosmetic but which made a huge difference. They were always one or two steps forward in their reflection with regard to my inevitably more operational focus.

guarantee availability of the assigned resources in due time (including my own)

I shall be demanding and even inflexible on the provision in due time of the resources promised to the project team to succeed. How could I be strict on any drift of the project if the authorized means are not provided? The most difficult one will be probably my own availability to the project manager. It must be easy to obtain, immediate, and especially with a 100 % of my attention dedicated to the project on these occasions.

remove the obstacles

In addition to supplying the necessary resources, I have the obligation to unlock complex situations or crises that the PM despite of all his/her efforts (because it is first of all his/her role to do so) would not know how to address. It doesn't mean removing the responsibility from the PM’s shoulders but rather supplying the required support when necessary.

establish and decide on the priorities

What should we do? Delay the project production date by a few days or to exceed the budget? The PM will supply me the arguments in favor and against these two alternatives, and possibly his/her recommendation. The decision will be on me and I shall have to take into account all of the following: the objectives and the imperatives of the business, the operational and commercial impacts, the stakeholders… This type of decision cannot be put off and, very often, no decision is worse than making an error which we will correct later.

examine progress regularly

A combination of formal and informal sessions seems to me an efficient approach. Formal project committees and the other gates or milestones reviews are necessary but often insufficient. Indeed, reading a report or listening to a well prepared presentation speech will not allow me to understand what’s really happening. It is necessary to read between lines, to hear the unsaid, the intangible, to appreciate the difficulties of the PM and to have a real human relationship. In my past projects, brief (30 minutes) and regular (weekly) sessions appeared to me to be the most effective.

promote frank and open communications (put down the masks!)

To get the vital info, including the bad news that are difficult to hear, I need on my side to be frank and open with the PM. To communicate without taboo or hidden agenda is a must. A part from information that could place the company at risk such as the legal issues (some financial information for example, or reorganizations and mergers/acquisitions), everything can be explained with a little bit of intelligence and trust.

provide standards of performance

To be opened and approachable does not mean being permissive. My best sponsors were inflexible with me and my team. I had very clearly their support and knew perfectly what they expected from me. We had high standards of quality and performance and these were mutually shared.

develop an organization that learns from its mistakes and successes

Finally, as the sponsor of an important project of the company and thus member of its senior management, I owe to develop the skills and the know-how of the resources which are under my leadership and to make sure that the lessons learned will benefit future projects.

Michel Operto

I've been leading IT projects for more than 20 years at telecom and computer manufacturers: Thomson Sintra, Digital Equipment, NCR, Nortel Networks, Orange Business Services. My passion is Project Management and leadership and I run a blog on the PM best practices at http://dantotsupm.com/