Dear Sponsor – Some Tips To Help – It’s Your Goal And Your Reputation

To smash it as a project/program sponsor, you need to know the following and have answers to the questions below. You need to insist on being in charge. If you can do that, you’ll be well on the path to being the best sponsor you can be.

As the Sponsor you own the project/program’s goal and overall direction. You provide the authority and credibility to enable the work to be planned and executed.

Your role is similar to that of a chairman of the board. Responsible for:

  • Setting the goal and the strategy (or approving both if you delegate the work).
  • Choosing, managing and guiding the executive who will make it happen (the project/program manager). And, where necessary, terminating and replacing them.
  • Fronting the project as its advocate to the broader audience of the organisation.
  • Championing and prosecuting the case for the project within the organisation and against competing forces.
  • Diplomacy on behalf of the project when tough conversations and negotiations are needed.

With responsibility like this comes hidden danger and sponsoring a project can be one of the most fraught challenges you ever take on. Here’s why:

  1. It’s an outcome you need in order to deliver on your goals for the business – you want something done so you can achieve something that you can’t get done within normal working time and resources.
  2. You have a good idea of what you want done and then suddenly it becomes a ‘project’ or a ‘program’ and the experts start using terminology and doing things in the way they ‘should’ be done.
  3. Often you don’t get to choose who is going to make it happen for you. I am baffled and bewildered that this happens – in what world does anyone think it’s okay for you to be entirely responsible and accountable for an outcome where you cannot get exactly the right kind of people you need to deliver it?
  4. In most cases, the dynamic changes from the sponsor being the main player to the project/program and its manager (and associated experts) being key.
  5. Often the reports you get (stop light or RAG reports, as they’re so quaintly called) don’t answer the key questions you need answers to.
  6. You’re never quite sure you’ve got the real situation regarding your project and you never quite know whether the decisions being made are the ones you’d make yourself.
  7. At some point, most sponsors lose control or at least feel like they’ve been ‘distanced’ from the project.

One of the reasons for this fragile state of affairs as project sponsor is that the relationship between you (the sponsor), your project manager/director and the project itself is rarely spelt out at the start.

With that in mind, here are some key questions you need to ask and answer before you let the project, and the person who will lead it for you, get underway.

What do you want the project manager to do?

This isn’t a trick question and it’s not about the title, instead it’s about the role you want them to play. The project manager can:

  • Administer the project – making sure all the paperwork is up to date.
  • Coordinate the project – making sure the things that need to happen do, and at the right time.
  • Technically lead the project – used when you don’t have anyone available with the domain knowledge to undertake the project. This works well in single domain projects but falls apart miserably when the project needs to span domains.
  • Manage the project – making sure all the resources are available and ready, and report against a project plan, budget, and more. Within this, do you want the project resources to report to the PM or do they need to drive by influence alone?
  • Direct the project – like a conductor, they plan the project, assemble all the resources and direct their use and involvement at the right time. As for the overall manager, you need to decide whether you want the project resources to report to the PM or whether the PM drives by influence alone.

When, why and how do you want to make decisions about the project?

Too many sponsors agree with the PM that they only need to be involved when the cost is above a certain amount, but don’t fall for that. This is your project, it is your outcome and you need to be certain that you’ll get to make the decisions that matter.

The most effective way to do this is to redefine the value of the project because most projects are defined by their budget. For example, you hear people say that “it’s a $6 million project”. In fact, the budget is a poor basis against which to value a project – some large spends can result in modest outcomes that no one cares much about, while others have small budgets but the upside is huge.

You need to define the upside so that you get the full picture, then talk about and write down all the things that have to happen in order for you to be able to get the result you want. For example, no one wants a new CRM system – they want an easier and better way to track prospects and clients. If that’s your project, make sure the PM knows that anything that impacts your view of the outcome must come to you, which goes for improvements too.
I’ve seen too many projects and sponsors go under because well-intentioned project people ‘improve’ things. If they don’t know what you know and they aren’t on the same page as you, then they shouldn’t be making decisions for you.

How do you want the PM to work with you?

Do you want daily conversations or weekly? Or simply texts with variances? Do you want them to keep the truth from you or tell it like it is, no matter what the news is? Do you want them to be proactive and take charge to get what you want or to be reactive and a follower, just reporting on progress?

There are so many questions and answers, and one of the most important things you can do is to make sure you’ve got a person delivering for you who gets what you want, will deliver the project you want them to, and make sure you get to make the decisions you want to make. You need someone who will give you the information you want them to give you.
To smash it as a project sponsor, you need to have answers to the questions above and you need to insist on being in charge. If you can do that, you’ll be well on the path to being the best sponsor you can be.