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What does it mean to be a great project sponsor? The project sponsor’s role is diverse. It’s far more than being a figurehead for the project. It’s a decision-making, direction-setting role.
If you are leading a project in a sponsorship capacity, or want to sense-check that your sponsor is stepping up to meet their responsibilities, then I have something for you that will help.
Below you’ll find 10 tips for being a good sponsor, drawn from Strategies for Project Sponsorship by James, Taylor and Rosenhead. The book includes a list of 50 secrets in Appendix D which is a summary of The Standish Group’s Chaos Manifesto 2012: The Year of the Executive Sponsor. While that might seem like a long time ago, I feel they are still relevant today.
- Get the right project resources
- Make quick decisions
- Understand project management techniques
- Know when to pull the plug
- Celebrate accomplishments
- Manage financial changes
- Overcome ignorance
- Set goals
- Communicate the facts
- Understand risk and reward.
Those are the headlines. Below, I’ve added my interpretation of what these mean on projects today.
Your role as a project sponsor is to make sure that the project can be done efficiently and effectively, and you need resources to do that. Resources can be money, equipment or people (or anything else required to get the job done).
Ask your project manager what resources are required, and be prepared to challenge (project managers have been known to inflate what’s needed in order to make sure they can secure enough resource for the project).
Then negotiate with other senior leaders to give the project what it realistically needs to deliver on its objectives.
2. Make quick decisions
Project teams are expensive, so having them hanging around while you make up your mind is not a good idea.
Get the information you need to make the decision, then make it, and tell people what you decided. They might not like your decision, but you’re the boss, so they’ll abide by it. Just be able to justify why you chose what you did.
Not sure how to make that final call? Read my guide on the process for decision-making.
Having said that, don’t rush into a decision without all the facts or you will head the project off on the wrong path.
3. Understand project management techniques
Yes, this is the job of the project manager, but you don’t want them to be able to bamboozle you with
If you can spare an hour, go through the PMI Kickoff course. It’s easy to follow, and it will give you the basics of what project management is all about. And it’s free.
Believe me, they’re doing the best they can and if they are following a structured set of guidelines then they are probably going to get you a great result.
But not if you hamper them by demanding they do things differently. By all means challenge the ‘how’ behind the way the work is being managed, but be prepared to listen the results. I mentor project managers who have told they have to be
4. Know when to pull the plug
It might be your pet project, but if it’s over budget, late and no longer on track to deliver the business benefits, then it is time to part company.
Throwing good money after wasted effort just to save face is stupid. So steel yourself for any potential conflict and get your project cancelled.
Then get your team working on something that really will revolutionize the company.
5. Celebrate accomplishments
Everyone loves a party, and while you don’t have to be lavish you do need to reward the project team for their efforts. They will work harder and appreciate you and the project’s objectives more.
Yes, it’s a bit like bribery. But think of it more like a boost for team morale.
There are plenty of ways you can celebrate success on a project team, and the act of thanking the team for their work doesn’t have to cost a lot. Or anything. Just saying thanks is valued because it means you have taken the time to notice what they do.
6. Manage financial changes
Project budget changes can kill a project, so make sure that any financial changes are passed down the line to your project manager as soon as you can.
Help the project manager understand what the financial pressures are and work with them to come up with creative solutions to address any fundamental problems.
This may involve cutting scope. That means taking stuff off your wish list! You can’t have everything and pay less for it. Fact. Don’t believe me? Learn more about scope creep.
7. Overcome ignorance
There are bound to be things that you don’t know about the way the project is being delivered and how the goals will be achieved. Software is mysterious. Project management techniques are baffling. Subject matter experts exist on a different planet.
Learn as much as you need to so that the team can’t pull the wool over your eyes. Then stop. You don’t need to code and you don’t need to understand why widgets are constructed in that way. Let your experts understand the detail.
An excellent free beginners project management course that comes in Agile and Predictive versions. Perfect for accidental project managers and people needing a structured approach to project work for the first time.
8. Set goals
Projects need goals. Create them. Set a vision. Set objectives. Help your team understand why they are going where they are going.
And give them a map to get there.
Goals give people purpose, so you’ll get better results from your team if you communicate the project goals effectively.
9. Communicate the facts
While you can communicate goals in the language of vision and values, you should keep most of your communication to facts, especially when it comes to project progress.
This is also a great example to set for your project manager. Deal in concrete details, not ‘maybes’ and feelings. Get your project manager recording metrics and tracking what’s important. Ask them to start a decision log to record what’s been agreed.
10. Understand risk and reward
Risks are things that could happen. Sometimes they are bad, sometimes the things that could happen are good. Sometimes taking a risk means a bigger reward. Think about your own risk tolerance and that of the company. Be clear about the sorts of risk you are prepared for your project team to take, and the sorts of risks you want them to ask you about.
Risk is good, but it has the downside of being, well, risky. If you are risk averse your projects will cost more and take longer, but you’ll have more confidence in the outcome. Sometimes taking risks is fun, and it certainly makes projects more interesting, so don’t try to rule it out completely – that won’t work, anyway.
Putting these 10 tips into practice will help you be a fantastic project sponsor — or to guide someone into that role.
These 10 secrets have been taken from Strategies for Project Sponsorship by James, Taylor and Rosenhead. They appear as a list of 50 secrets in Appendix D as a summary of The Standish Group’s Chaos Manifesto 2012: The Year of the Executive Sponsor. The accompanying paragraphs are my own interpretation of the headings.
A version of this article first appeared in 2013.