As a project leadership coach I often run workshops for project managers that touch upon the differences between the role of the project manager and the role of the sponsor. In the workshops we mostly agree that the project manager is responsible for leading the team on a day-to-day basis and for delivering the agreed scope and quality within the allocated time and cost constraints.
We also agree that the project sponsor is ultimately accountable for the project. They own the business case and set the overall vision for the project. They promote the project to the wider organisation and make executive decisions that are beyond the scope of the project manager. The sponsor should act as a champion, paving the way for the change and breaking down organisational barriers.
Now, if the project sponsor is responsible for setting the overall vision, what is the project manager’s role regarding the strategic aspect of the project? Does it mean that the project manager can wash their hands of any responsibility if the project is going in the wrong direction?
I have witnessed many projects where the project manager stuck to their execution role. They delivered what was asked of them. They didn’t question the direction of the project or the business case behind it, because they feel that it wasn’t their role. Unfortunately the project’s rationale wasn’t always as clear as it should have been and the project sometimes ended up not delivering any major benefits or adding any significant value.
I can give you a small example from my own career. Years ago my team was asked to produce a number of new reports for a trading system. The reports would enable the users to run different kinds of queries. I think there were eight new reports in total. We built the reports and delivered them without any issues. Three months later we could see from the system that none of the reports had been used. So essentially we’d delivered a product, which there was little or no need for.
It’s easy in this case to blame the project sponsor. She had asked for work to be carried out where there was no business case. Luckily it was a relatively small investment. But the same happens on a much larger scale. Projects are initiated and completed where they shouldn’t have been. It’s not uncommon for projects to have a weak foundation when too few people have questioned their rationale.
We often make the incorrect assumption that our client or sponsor know what their needs are and that they have analysed their business challenges in-depth.
But whereas the sponsor may have a great understanding of the day-to-day operations, they may not be skilled at identifying how their business needs can be met by a new product or service.
In some cases, of course, the project executives know exactly what they need and how the project ties in with their corporate strategy. But in other cases the set-up is entirely different with stakeholders who lack a clear vision of how the project can add value in the short, medium or long-term.
Not surprisingly, projects have the greatest potential to add value to the organisation when they are aligned with corporate strategy. What is perhaps more surprising is that according to the PMI only 40% of all projects are aligned to strategic objectives. That’s a relatively low number and one of the reasons why project managers need to step up and help bridge the gap between strategy and delivery. They need to empower themselves to take joint responsibility for the bigger picture together with the sponsor.
In order to help bridge the gap, project managers must fully engage the sponsor and senior stakeholders and help them visualise the end state when all changes have taken place and all benefits have been realised.
When the project is starting up I essentially see the project manager as a part coach, part consultant who helps the senior team shape and define the project so it will become a success for all parties.
Project managers must challenge assumptions and ask the right set of questions, such as:
- What will make you say in 10 months that this project was a success?
- In which ways will this project help the organisation to be more effective in the short, medium and long-term?
- How will the company operate differently as a result of this project?
The most simple and straightforward enquiries are often the most powerful, and perhaps the hardest to ask. Project managers sometimes feel that questions that relate to the client’s business or organisational strategy are outside of their domain and comfort zone. But if they don’t ask, they won’t be able to understand how to create added value through the project.
In the beginning of a project they may be surrounded by people who know more than they do, which can be intimidating. But they have to push ahead in spite of their discomfort until they fully comprehend the strategic context and satisfy themselves that the project is worthwhile undertaking. That’s the only way to establish a solid foundation for delivery.
Taking part ownership of the project’s vision has another added benefit.
The greater clarity the project managers have about what it takes to deliver the ultimate benefits, the easier it will be for them to provide focus and direction to the team. When they fully embrace the goals, objectives, and plans of the project, they are able to inspire and motivate the team and make the day-to-day decisions that are necessary to reach those objectives. Together with the sponsor they need to keep the vision alive and make it relevant to the team members, drawing them into the vision by illustrating how each of their roles matters to its overall execution.
When this happens, the project manager becomes an inspiration to the team and a great example for others to follow. The project manager becomes an agent of change who is concerned with delivering a product or a service that adds value rather than simply executing a project because someone higher up in the hierarchy told them to.