Project Sponsorship 101

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Peter Taylor, coauthor of Strategies for Project sponsorship. How good is your project sponsor? Peter Taylor, Ron Rosenhead, and Vicki James just published a book on project sponsors. It aims to address some challenges faced by project managers when working with sponsors and help sponsors get better at sponsoring.
I spoke with the authors of Strategies For Project Sponsorship to learn more about project sponsorship and the reasons they believe the world needs to hear more about it. Peter Taylor is the first in the hot seat.
Let’s start with something simple, Peter. How do you define a sponsor for a project?
It’s a great question to begin with, and it was also the question we started with as authors. Although the major project management bodies define sponsorship in different ways, we didn’t feel there was a single, clear definition.
We list the 17 key responsibilities of project sponsors in the book. However, these can be summarized in what we call ‘balanced sponsorship’. This is someone who is involved with the project, objective about it, supportive of the project manager and reactive to project requirements.
Another view is that the project’s success or failure is ultimately up to the executive sponsor. We aren’t so sure that this is true at the top, as many project managers seem to be confused about why a project might be failing or slipping, but very few sponsors seem have similar experiences.
Okay, now what should I be looking for in a project sponsor?
It is said that a project is a one-small step for a project manager and a huge leap for a project sponsor. Wouldn’t project managers feel better knowing that the project sponsor’s “one small step” would guarantee that the complementary “giant leap” would result in a safe and secure landing?
Karen Tate [1] stated that managing a project without project management was like trying to play football without a plan. We decided that delivering a project without sponsorship was like playing football without a game plan, a coach, funds for new players or even a referee. This is not a good situation.
These behaviors are indicative of a potentially bad project sponsor.
If they are not connected to you, the project manager, and the project team, that is a red flag. If they are too busy to meet and discuss the project, then that makes that red even darker. You have a problem that has reached critical status if they refuse to help with project roles and responsibilities, or if they don’t have the time to approve documents ‘timely’. If they are blaming others for any problems, it is time to move on. Your project is in serious trouble.
Bad sponsors can be your worst nightmare.
A good project sponsor, on the other hand, will be a positive influence in these areas. They will gladly act as an advisor to the project manager and will work hard to remove obstacles that prevent the project from succeeding.
My experience is that project managers do not get to choose their sponsor. Would you agree?
Yes. It’s a bit like the saying, “You can pick your friends but not your relatives”, which is also true for project sponsors. You get what you pay for.
If you don’t like your sponsor, how do you establish a professional working relationship?
Understanding your project sponsor is the first step. Through simple questions at the beginning of your relationship, you can learn a lot about your sponsor’s ‘whereabouts’. Ask them about their hopes and fears.