The Sponsors Who Don’t

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Meet the Project Sponsor

Fail to engage your sponsors and you will fail to deliver the project. Making assumptions on the enthusiasm of your sponsors is fatal. At best you’ll be missing vital support, at worst you’ll need to manage a destructive force.

When they [finally?] get pulled into a project, a Change Manager will be introduced to the sponsor; perhaps there’s a board of them, perhaps a single executive or maybe some sort of homogeneous gloop of expectations, agendas and authority spread across various departments. The sponsors will be those who gave the project life and, from that point onwards, need convincing why they shouldn’t pull the plug.

For your average pressured project manager keen to make a good impression, there will be a looping mantra in their mind: “Keep these people happy”. They’ll do so by presenting a stream of reporting to demonstrate a project succeeding or at least succeeding in managing set-backs. The less they need to ask of the sponsors, the more relaxed they will be. Project Managers’ daydreams are full of columns of green status reporting and pronouncements of “no issues” to smiling faces all round. Which is why they will likely become nervous at what I’m about to suggest. If you’re a visiting Project Manager, grab something to hide behind.

Sponsors represent the most powerful assets in your toolkit. They bring currency to the project not easily obtainable elsewhere: budget, resources, reputation, authority, respect. Most sponsors will begrudgingly recognise the expectation for the first two, but will not understand their role in delivering success through the rest. Their ability to bring legitimacy to the message and congruence to reality is vital.

It is in a Change Manager’s gift to ensure the Sponsors understand their role and to ensure the project’s need for contribution is clearly articulated in unambiguous requests.

Assuming the sponsors commitment and understanding of this at the start of a project, when they are actually still a target, is an extremely common error. For many sponsors the single act of authorising the project, and continuing that authorisation, is the only contribution they perceive as required from them. Without their contribution, steer and the legitimacy brought by senior management, user groups will remain unconvinced and unengaged,

So what does this mean for you? It’s really very simple.

  • Assume they are distracted, misunderstand or are unconvinced: treat the sponsors as targets until they fully understand what is in it for them, and what they will need to do to achieve this.
  • Respect their time: don’t fill up diaries with reporting and chit-chat.
  • Keep it simple: make a set of limited, specific requests of them in regular brief sessions.
  • Make it easy: take on any and all legwork required for them to deliver your request.

The next time you find yourself sat in another project board meeting, listening to updates on the latest RAG report, look round the room at the Sponsors; are they a barrier or a resource?

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