Working With Project Sponsors

Working With Project Sponsors

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A project's sponsor is the "client" who wants it delivered.

No project will ever get off the ground without a sponsor. He or she is the person who has identified the need for change in an area of the business, and is committed to making that change happen. The project sponsor is the person who proposes the project, and who procures the resources – the people, the money, and the time.  

The sponsor has the authority and influence within the organization to champion the project, and ensure it has all the support it needs to succeed. In other words, the project sponsor is the internal 'client' to whom the project manager has to deliver the project on spec, on budget, and on time.

The project manager/project sponsor relationship is, therefore, extremely important to a project's success. If you're a project manager, then understanding exactly what a project sponsor does is critical to managing this relationship effectively and proactively. 

The Role of a Project Sponsor

First and foremost, a sponsor must have the authority and commitment to ensure a project's success. While a project manager's influence is often limited to the project team, the sponsor is the one who leads and directs the overall business environment related to the project. Therefore, the sponsor is responsible for making sure the organization understands the value of the project, and is ready to receive and implement the project's deliverables,

The project sponsor usually holds a senior position within the business function that will ultimately support the project. This way, the sponsor has significant input into the project, and is highly committed to the results.

Some of the key project sponsor responsibilities are as follows:

  • Aligning the project with organizational objectives – Promoting the project, monitoring the political environment, and making changes as necessary.
  • Appointing the project manager (PM) – Ensuring that the PM understands his or her role and responsibilities.
  • Approving the project plan – This includes the project scope, schedule, budget, and objectives.
  • Holding the PM accountable for keeping the project on track – Meeting regularly with the PM, and holding the PM accountable for key deliverables according to the project plan.
  • Supporting the PM – Being available for consultations and meetings, and helping the PM avoid and reduce the impact of obstacles.
  • Providing funding – Obtaining the necessary financial resources, or liaising with the person or group that authorizes funding (for example, the company owner, board of directors, external funding sources). Ensuring that project assets are used properly (this financial obligation is often the basis for all of the other responsibilities of a project sponsor).
  • Helping the PM obtain other necessary resources – This includes managing cross-functional relationships, and protecting promised resources, so they don't get reassigned elsewhere.
  • Actively promoting the project – Communicating the benefits and importance of the project.
  • Mentoring and supporting the PM – Empowering and motivating the PM, building the PM's confidence and leadership skills, and dealing with issues that the PM can't resolve.
  • Approving major changes – This includes supporting the need for additional resources, and otherwise changing key parts of the project plan when necessary.
  • Monitoring and reviewing progress – Providing the PM with strategic direction, validating project phases, and signing off on deliverables.
  • Celebrating the project's success – Recognizing the team's effort, supporting implementation as needed, and contributing to the final review process, including the Post-Implementation Review.

In summary, the project sponsor is an executive-level champion who ensures that the project gets what it needs, and delivers what it should. Clearly, project sponsorship is an active position that involves a continuous commitment throughout the life of the project.

Large projects often have a steering committee, which is typically headed by the project sponsor. This committee has final budget approval, makes decisions about scope and objective changes, and is the highest authority for resolving issues and disputes.

Characteristics of a Great Project Sponsor

To fill this critical role, a person needs to be passionate about the project, and able to communicate that passion effectively. Here are some of the key requirements for an effective project sponsor:

  • Having sufficient influence within the organization to champion a cause.
  • Understanding the organization's strategy, and how the project's objectives help to deliver it.
  • Having the authority to make final decisions.
  • Have a vested interest in the project outcome.
  • Understanding the project objectives.
  • Being able to solve problems involving different stakeholders and competing needs.
  • Having enough time to dedicate to project meetings and responsibilities.
  • Communicating effectively with all levels of the organization.

If you're asked to be a project sponsor, or if you're looking for the right sponsor, you should be aware of these qualities. However, if you're a project manager, and you need to work closely with the sponsor, you can do certain things to take charge of the relationship, and help ensure the project's success. We'll discuss some of these next.

Working Effectively With Project Sponsors

Having the right sponsor is only half the battle. The project sponsor and project manager must work well together. They may already have a working relationship, because they often work in the same office and for the same company. Sometimes, however, the project sponsor and project manager come from different organizations. Knowing how to make this important relationship work is key to the project's success.

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Here are some tips for project managers to improve the way they collaborate with their project sponsors:

  • Discuss project expectations right from the start – Make sure you're both clear about the objectives and the project specifics.
  • Take responsibility for the quality of the relationship – Set the tone for the relationship, and for the type of communication you'll use.
  • Find out how much the sponsor knows – Determine how much information the sponsor has about project details, and be prepared to provide any missing information.
  • Agree on the sponsor's role and responsibilities – Discuss issues like these:
    • How does the sponsor want the PM to report progress?
    • How will progress be reported to senior management?
    • What kind of issues does the sponsor want to be involved in?
    • Which deliverables will the sponsor approve?
    • How will the sponsor be involved in requested changes?
    • What is the best time and means of communication?
  • Introduce the sponsor to the project team – Give the sponsor an opportunity to provide an executive-level perspective on the project and its expected outcomes.
  • Meet regularly and communicate openly – Have ongoing discussions on matters of importance, and continue to build your relationship.
  • Respect the sponsor's time – Carefully prepare for meetings, and summarize information as much as possible. Make it as easy as possible for the sponsor to get the information needed.
  • Be open and honest with the sponsor – Address problems and delays in a timely manner, and give the sponsor enough time to deal with issues that need to be resolved. The more trust you develop, the better the project outcomes will be.

Project managers typically focus on one project, whereas a sponsor may oversee several projects at the same time. Take this into consideration, and make the communication process as simple and straightforward as possible. An effective project manager acts as a guide, and makes it easier for the sponsor, who has ultimate accountability for the final result.

Key Points

The project sponsor's influence, commitment, and effectiveness directly impact a project's success. Project sponsorship, however, requires certain skills as well as active participation. Throughout the project, there are tasks to be completed, actions to be taken, and decisions to be made. Sponsors are ultimately responsible for initiating the project, and for supporting the achievement of its outcomes. They have a governance role – ensuring that the project is completed according to its plan, scope, schedule, and budget.

Project sponsors and project managers can do many things to improve project outcomes. It's a partnership of shared responsibility: the project manager focuses on specific deliverables, and the project sponsor focuses on overall outcomes. This relationship is a top priority, and it can be managed from both sides for maximum effectiveness.