Project manager and project sponsor. Successful projects need both, and for the relationship between the two to be complementary. But too often what begins as a productive partnership tails off over the course of a project lifecycle. Here we look at what project professionals can do to ensure the relationship with their sponsor is a fruitful one.
In the world of project management, an effective sponsor is someone who can robustly advocate for your project to the rest of the organisation: an expert enabler, ready and able to influence and align stakeholders. If the project manager is behind the wheel, it’s the sponsor who makes sure the road ahead is free of obstacles.
When fulfilled correctly, the role of sponsor has been regularly proven to make a critical contribution to project success. For instance, in line with earlier survey results, PMI’s Pulse of the Profession 2017 found that:
Actively engaged executive sponsors continue to be the top driver of whether projects meet their original goals and business intent.
Likewise, a 2020 study from the Australian Insitutute of Project Management noted a strong correlation between sponsor engagement and successful delivery.
But for the sponsor to build a head of steam behind their project and effectively champion it, they need to be engaged all the way – not just during the ‘new and shiny’ phase. And therein lies the problem. Too often, project managers state that sponsor engagement wanes over the duration of a project. As a result, they can create roadblocks instead of removing them.
So what is it that causes that engagement to fizzle out and what can you do to prevent this from happening on your next project?
A common issue is one of time – or lack of. A project manager necessarily focuses fully on their project; a sponsor on the other hand might look after a portfolio of similar initiatives, as well as juggling the demands of their main responsibilities.
On top of this, it’s sometimes seniority and convenience, rather than relevant experience, that sees an individual assigned as sponsor. As a result, they may not be particularly invested in the cause, have vague ideas about the requirements of the role, and give too little or too much to the project.
To help help counter these realities, it’s recommended to meet with your sponsor and agree all the key parameters before launching a new project. This is the time to outline goals and milestones, establish responsibilities, set a cadence for meetings (aligned to reporting deadlines), identify required resources and – in the process – tactfully correct any off-kilter expectations. Being on the same page from the outset will obviously help to minimise issues down the track.
Getting – and keeping – support
When priorities change as rapidly as they did throughout the coronavirus pandemic, a good sponsor could be the difference between a team being pulled in every direction, and one that is pulling together towards a clear set of goals.
Without this constant source of support and advocacy, it’s easy for a project to lose momentum. Messages not getting through to senior leadership? Critical information or resources not forthcoming? Not aligned on root cause of blockers or recommended responses? The project manager must be able to assess what’s not working and why, and then use their well-developed people skills to secure the necessary support.
It could be that the sponsor simply doesn’t know how to communicate value, in which case it’s up to the project manager to supply the ammunition needed to make a business case that cannot be ignored. Headlines, bullets, talking points: if the project manager can communicate key tenets simply and to the target audience, the better able the sponsor will be to strongly articulate the needs and benefits of a project. When key messages are communicated clearly, executive level support should be easier to secure and maintain.
Over the lifecycle of a project, the sponsorship demands will change and so should the project manager’s approach to sponsor engagement. Keep the engagements concise, valuable and relevant to the project’s success and be explicit on ‘the ask’ of the sponsor, or what you need from the sponsor to clear the path for delivery, drive decision making, align senior stakeholders or to stay on track (by disapproving scope creep that won’t add value).
To this end, avoid just reporting the latest status and keep focused on what’s required to drive towards the business case success factors and how the sponsor can help to achieve the right outcomes. And be respectful of the sponsor’s time; iterate the communications and meeting cadence to suit the project’s demands. Give some time back to the sponsor when possible – in return, they are more likely to reward you with prioritisation when you need it.
Speaking a common language
Which brings us neatly to the next point: bearing in mind the time pressures a sponsor might face, key messages need to be as simple as possible – especially executive communications. So ruling out jargon, technical terms and even acronyms will help the message get across that much faster.
It does cut both ways, however. In other words, it can pay for a project manager to understand the sort of language that engages senior management. Translating project-specific language into terminology that helps executives trust what they hear, using metrics they understand such as business value, can cement long-term support from the top down.
Broaden the conversation
Working with other project managers can help to effectively communicate value across an organisation. What does good project sponsorship look like? How does it happen? What was the benefit to a particular team or project? Use exemplars and other project managers’ experiences to build up a best practice guide for your sponsor, tailored to your organisation.
While there’s a wealth of knowledge and training for project managers to tap into, comparable resources are few and far between for project sponsors. Success stories, clear understanding, communication, and the key steps, tools or processes that enabled them, will help them know what to aim for and how to get there.
This can all work to move the conversation away from delivering to plan – on budget, on time – and towards how effective project sponsorship can benefit an entire organisation.
Project sponsors are the key link between delivery and strategy, with the power to back resources, initiatives and changes, as well as disapprove them when required. That’s why it’s crucial to put in the yards to make sure the relationship with your sponsor is a mutally beneficial one.
Keep them informed, engaged and onside, and feed successful ways of working into future relationships. In return, your projects will be better placed to get the advocacy they need over the lifecycle to achieve their outcomes and benefits.
To discover more about effective project sponsorship and what else you should consider to set your projects up for success, contact the experts at PM-Partners or call us on 1300 70 13 14 today.