Myths about project sponsorship

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PMI sign in shop window


Elyse Nielson from Ascension Health and the blog Anticlue gave a presentation at the PMI Global Congress North America in Dallas last month about sponsors and their interaction with the project. She talked about the importance of getting the right sponsor for the project and shared some myths about project sponsorship.

Elyse pointed out that both project managers and project sponsors commonly believe that:

  • “One size fits all.”
  • A sponsor’s interaction with a project cannot be changed.
  • Everybody knows what to do, even the sponsor.

She then went on to explain that the sponsor’s responsibilities are many and varied, and include:

  • Ownership of the project
  • Authority over the project resources
  • Communication: “They also have to be able to do the 30-second blurb and do the campaigning for the project to keep it going,” she said. “You have to be on the exact same page with your sponsor.”
  • Change management
  • Accountability
  • Benefits realisation

Elyse said that the sponsor should be:

  • An advocate
  • A leader
  • A mentor
  • A coach
  • A decision maker
  • Someone with a global perspective
  • Someone able to lead on the subject of risk mitigation
  • A good manager

“When you have a team that’s in the dumps and an executive gives them a pat on the back, that’s better than a bonus sometimes,” she said.

Elyse pointed out that the concept of one sponsor for the life of the project is limiting, especially when you consider that the role of the sponsor, their focus and the tasks they need to do all change depending on the project phase. For example:

  • Initiation: sponsor should have organisational expertise to ensure that the project starts in the best possible way
  • Planning: sponsor should demonstrate a strategic view
  • Execution: sponsor should concentrate on removing roadblocks and allowing the project team to carry out their tasks as required
  • Closing: sponsor should focus on the project benefits, and of course rewarding the team for their hard work.

“Not a lot of people are good at all of that,” Elyse said.

That’s true, isn’t it? Sometimes a sponsor who is great at the strategic stuff doesn’t know how to get things done when the project hits a roadblock. Equally, someone who can manage all that might not be good at campaigning on behalf of the project to ensure it keeps senior management’s attention.

The point she was making was that it isn’t a failure to switch sponsors through the life of the project, and in some cases it might even be the best thing to do. Have you ever switched sponsors on a project? What was the result?

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