In this blogpost a key role for the successful delivery of a project shall be discussed. It´s the role of the “project sponsor”. GAPPS, the Global Alliance for Project Performance Standards, published in 2015 a Guiding Framework for Project Sponsors. The Framework defines the role as follows: “The sponsor is an individual who may be called funder, owner, client, senior responsible owner. The person appointed as a sponsor typically has a permanent position within the organization. The role of project sponsor is generally considered an additional, part time role. The organisation’s governance practices should make it clear who the sponsor is, how the sponsor is selected, their accountabilities, and responsibilities as well as the relationships between the sponsor and the project manager and between the project and the business. These practices should ensure that the sponsor has authority, credibility, and/or position necessary to perform the role. The sponsor may be appointed from and at any management level within the organization that is applicable for the type of project being sponsored.”
In practice, we are facing several difficulties:
– For many projects the role of a sponsor is not defined. This creates many difficulties for the project manager, trying to find someone in the organisation to answer the many questions he or she has. It starts with the clarifications of the objectives, the business case and the constraints of the projects. Later it continues with important decisions, e.g. change requests and additional resource requirements. Finally, the sponsor needs to accept the deliverables and sign-off the project. Thus, the role of a project sponsor from the initiation throughout the end of a project should be clearly defined and communicated.
– Power and influence of a project sponsor is key for supporting projects in a complex and dynamic context. The lower a project sponsor is positioned in the hierarchy, the more it is difficult to succeed in decision-making processes and discussions. Thus, a project sponsor should be positioned as high as possible in an organisation and make his or her influence available to the project manager. It does not mean pushing things through, but at least balancing the (often) uneven distribution of power between line and project functions.
– Project sponsors are NOT another management level of the project, they need to delegate as much authority to the project team as possible. A project sponsor sets the frame for the project, gives space to maneuver and supports the project team as much as possible. Thus, a project sponsor is a Governance function, which sets the scene, supports the project manager but does NOT intervene too much into the project. It is certainly a thin line between the two sides. A sponsor needs to demonstrate excellent leadership skills, rather acting as a coach, mentor or champion than a control freak. However, the sponsor is typically accountable for the business case and the benefits realization, and thus needs to ensure the outcomes fit to the expectations of the organisation.
– The sponsor might lack the strategic vision of the project and only guides from a specific point of view. However, projects are in support of realizing strategic objectives. A project sponsor is responsible for the alignment of the project objectives with the strategic objectives. Thus, a sponsor needs to be competent from a strategic viewpoint. This is critical, as in many cases projects are performed that do not really support the vision, mission and strategy of the organisation.
– The relationship between sponsors, the PMO, the Portfolio Manager and a steering committees is often ambiguous. A project sponsor is typically introduced by a (multi-project) steering committee and may be part of that committee. A project sponsor may define a project-specific steering committee with people influencing the project from a line or other function. The Portfolio Manager and the PMO should support the sponsor with data and advise.
During many assessments of the organisational competence in major companies we observe, that the role of project sponsors is poorly defined and performed. Our recommendation is to care more for the role and the people in that role. Specific trainings could help them to better understand their tasks, authorities and accountabilities. It is a key role for successful delivery of projects and should therefore be treated with high priority by top management, especially in large companies. In small and medium-sized companies this may not be such a big problem, because the CEO is performing the role anyway.