All projects should have a project sponsor, and this person is normally already in post by the time you are asked to manage the project. You don’t often (or ever) get to choose your project sponsor so you have to work with who you get! But what should you look for in a project sponsor, and what sort of behaviours should you encourage? Here are 7 things that your project sponsor should be doing for you.
1. Securing resources
Probably the first thing you think of when you consider what a project sponsor does for the team is securing resources. That’s because most of the project team members will come from the sponsor’s department – if the sponsor is the person who benefits most from the project you would expect the subject matter experts to be based in their teams. That should make securing people for your project team relatively easy. If the sponsor believes it is an important project, he or she will juggle around the work responsibilities and make it possible for the right people to have enough time to spend on the project.
However, there are also likely to be resources required that fall outside of the sponsor’s team. These people might work for central services like IT, HR, Communications or Finance and this is where your project sponsor’s negotiation skills come into play. The sponsor may rely on you to identify the kind of person you need on the team and for how long, and then they can go off armed with that information and talk to their peers about ‘borrowing’ that person for the project.
If your sponsor doesn’t have the influence to get you the right people on the team then it’s not rocket science to see that your project will struggle. You may have to talk to them honestly about asking someone else for help to secure the right resources.
2. Securing budget
Alongside securing people for the project team, the sponsor also has a critical role to play in securing you the budget to manage your project. Again, if it is their budget that is funding the work, and they believe in the project, it should be relatively easy for them to put some of their cash aside for this initiative.
It gets harder when they need to rely on funding from other departments, which happens more often than you think. Despite it being all company money at the end of the day, there are often turf wars between departments trying to avoid forking out money for anything and project managers get caught in the middle. You should be able to rely on your sponsor to sort out anything like this and to get you adequate funding.
Project sponsors are also important when it comes to budget and financial management. They are the people who approve additional spending, grant you authority to take money from the contingency fund or management reserves and they may have to authorise large invoices or purchase orders themselves.
If your sponsor doesn’t have the authority to secure or approve funding, then your project will find it difficult to complete all the specified work: without the money you won’t be able to get everything done. You’ll need to talk to them about how to fund the work if they can’t give you budgetary authority.
3. Approving change requests
The change management process on projects is well-known and if you’ve managed a project and dealt with a scope or other changes then you’ll know what to do. Once you’ve assessed the change you can put forward a recommendation about whether or not it is a good idea to do it. You’ll include information like how long it will take to do the work, what the impact is of this on the project plan, whether you have the resources to do it and how much it will cost. Then the sponsor gets the final decision.
Change decisions may be taken in a formal meeting like the Project Board or a Change Board and maybe discussed with the whole group before a decision is made. Or you may find yourself giving your sponsor an overview of the situation and what you would do if it was you while you are in the lunch queue together or waiting for the kettle to boil. Either way, the sponsor formally has the final say about whether a change is incorporated and they should feel comfortable making these decisions.
If your sponsor does not feel that they can act on (or reject) your recommendations when it comes to changes then you’ll find nothing gets approved and the project does not move forward. Think about why this happens – it could be lack of confidence on their part or you might not be giving them the information they need to make a decision.
Your project sponsor won’t do all the communication on the project – a lot of that will fall to you. But they should be communicating regularly to their peers, and upwards to their managers. They should be explaining progress, getting help with any issues they cannot solve themselves and generally championing the project overall.
Communication is important because it helps win over stakeholders who might be less than enthusiastic about the changes that the project is bringing in. It also raises the profile of the work which in turn helps with securing resources and budgets.
If your sponsor won’t or can’t communicate then your project will suffer from having a low profile. In turn that has an implication for the priority of your work and the amount of resources you receive to do the work. Talk to your sponsor about what you expect them to do in this area and provide the material to help them champion your project. They might not realise that this forms part of their brief.
5. Motivating the team
Another major part of project sponsorship is motivating the project team. That starts at the very beginning by setting appropriate goals for the project and explaining how the work of the team links back to achieving the strategic objectives of the company. They should be able to set a vision for the project and help everyone see how that will be achieved and what will be different once you reach your goals. They can use motivational stories and share customer experiences. In short, it’s their job to create a positive environment where everyone knows what they should be doing and why.
Motivation also includes celebration. Whether that is a quick thank you at the end of the week or stumping up the cash for a full-blown post-project party, celebrating success should definitely be on the agenda.
If your sponsor isn’t interested in what the team is doing or helping them achieve it then you may struggle to keep your team motivated during tough times on the project. You should feel as if you can turn to your sponsor for advice at any time.
6. Making decisions
Project managers need decisions made. You have a lot of responsibility in your role and can make a lot of decisions alone, but that responsibility does end somewhere and where it ends is where the sponsor’s responsibility takes over. They should be able to make decisions that help you move the project forward, such as whether or not something should be in scope, what approach you take to dealing with an issue and how much risk they are prepared to accept (more on risk below).
Without decisions, you’ll be left either having to make them yourself which is really out of your area of authority, or you’ll be stuck in a project that won’t progress because no one will decide what should happen next.
If your project sponsor won’t make decisions you are facing the very real possibility that your project will stop and ultimately fail. Think about why they are struggling to make decisions: are they missing critical information? Do they feel they need input from someone else? It could also be that they simply don’t understand the consequences that failing to make a decision will have, and you can certainly explain that.
7. Managing risk
Finally, project sponsors should be managing risk. OK, the day-to-day risk management process falls to you as the project manager, but the sponsor also has a critical role to play. They need to decide how much risk they are prepared to take on the project: too much risk and you put the investment in jeopardy. Too little risk and you may not reap sufficient reward to make the project worth doing at all.
Your project sponsor should communicate the sort of risk and the amount of risk that they are prepared to take – their personal risk tolerance and that of the company. This will help you manage the day-to-day risks appropriately and bring anything necessary to their attention.
A project sponsor who fails to understand risk management may end up creating more problems for the project, so if your sponsor doesn’t seem to ‘get’ it, invite them to some risk management meetings and keep talking to them about it.
Project sponsors are essential people on the team, and great assets when they do what you need them to! Project sponsors that aren’t engaged are difficult to work with and contribute to making the project harder than it really needs to be.
What sort of project sponsor do you have? Let us know in the comments below.
photo credit: lumaxart