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The role of the project sponsor

I recently wrote a piece for on helping your sponsor to be a better project sponsor. I wanted to follow this up by giving my views on the role of the project sponsor. I will argue in this article that the role of the sponsor depends on the situation and the people involved.

The role

There are various lists and definitions of project sponsors roles. Search on the web or through a few PM books and you will find many project sponsor role definitions in different levels of detail.

For example, in my book Brilliant Checklists for Project Managers, I created a simple list. My list says the project sponsor’s role is to:

  • Identify the business need for a project, and act as an evangelist for the project.
  • Provide senior support to a project during execution, helping to:
    • access resources
    • overcome problems
    • make decisions – e.g. approving baseline plans, budgets and changes
    • communicate about the project
    • retain enthusiasm and support for the project within the business
  • Set the business context for a project, the project manager and the project team, answering questions like: why is the project important, and how does it fit into the organisation’s strategy?
  • Ensure that the project manager is managing the project in a competent fashion.
  • Take accountability for delivery of business benefits, which may accrue after the project is completed and the project manager has finished his or her work.

My list adds that project managers are dependent on sponsor’s power, authority and influencing skills.

But is it really that simple?

I wrote Brilliant Checklists for Project Managers to be interesting to all project managers. But, as with anything with checklists, it is more likely to be useful to the less experienced project manager.

As your career and experience grows your relationship with the processes and guidelines of project management change. You respect the methodologies and bodies of knowledge for the collected wisdom they contain, you understand why project management processes have been developed and apply them when required. But you also learn that the real world of delivering projects is inherently and continuously variable. What is right in one situation is not right in another.

When it comes to the role of the project sponsor their role varies too. I think there are four core factors in this variation:

  1. The personality, style and availability of the project sponsor
    Some sponsors naturally lead from the front and engage actively. Others are behind the scenes manipulators. Some need to be pushed really hard to do any sponsorship at all, (I’m sure we have all experienced that!)
  2. The relationship you have with the sponsor and the role you want to perform on the project
    Do you have a strong and trusting relationship with the sponsor or not? Are you one of those PMs who wants to make a name for themself by visibly leading the biggest projects, or are you more comfortable in a supporting role making sure all the mechanics of the project run smoothly?
  3. The role other stakeholders on the project perform
    Do you have a supportive and sufficiently senior stakeholder group or are you working with negative, junior stakeholders?
  4. The needs of the project
    Is this the type of project that needs constant, strong and explicit sponsorship – or do you just need a sponsor to give you advice now and again?

How this makes a difference

Let’s look at a simple example. Imagine a large and complex program of work which will result in a significant degree of change for a large number of people in a business. Such a program needs strong leadership, bringing people on board to support the outcomes.

Who does this leadership role? Normally, I would answer the project sponsor. But if you are an experienced project manager, respected in your organisation and you have a set of supportive senior stakeholders, then the need for the sponsor to personally lead the project is reduced. You could take over some of the leadership role yourself. On the other hand, if you are a new project manager, or a contract project manager, working with a passive or even negative set of stakeholders, you are more likely to need a sponsor who will actively lead the program.

Making it real

This is just one example. If you work through the different aspects of the responsibility of a sponsor you can easily come up with examples of how different sponsors pursue each area of responsibility in different ways, with greater or lesser effectiveness. In my last article I explained how you could help your sponsor to be a better project sponsor. But on top of this you must be willing to flex your style and the responsibilities you adopt depending on the situation.

How can you do this? Well the first point is that it isn’t a theoretical exercise. It is about assessing your sponsor and entering into dialogue with him or her. In this dialogue options can be explored, the fundamental point of which is to determine: what needs to be done - what do I do – what do you do. I agree with one of the commentators on my last article that it is worth formalising this into something like a RACI chart. It’s not the RACI chart by itself that matters so much as the thinking that goes into creating it, and the discussions that you and your sponsors have in developing it. Ideally, the dialogue is the foundation of a productive partnership between you and your sponsor.

The conclusion

The role of the sponsor, as well as the role of the project manager, is not a constant that can be listed on a never changing role specification. Your project is about achieving an outcome. You need a sponsor who will provide the type of sponsorship that is required for this project to achieve its outcome in a specific situation. If your sponsor does not do what is required, you may have to fill the gaps.

You are one half of a double act with the project sponsor. Between the two of you the project has to be delivered. But you are each individuals with unique ways of working. If you expect your sponsor to fulfil the role in a text book fashion you will be disappointed, and you project may get into difficulty.

By all means start with a generic lists of needs and responsibilities, such as I gave at the beginning of this article, but to deliver be prepared to flexibly apply this.

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