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10 Practical Ways Sponsors Can Boost Their Project Success
By Harry Hall

I often ask project managers the reasons for project failure. One of the top responses is a lack of leadership and sustained engagement by the project sponsor. The sponsor paints a fuzzy picture of what they want, throws it over the fence to the project manager, and goes on their merry way. The sponsor essentially says, “Let me know when you’re done. Failure is not an option.” Really?

Fortunately, some sponsors know how to hit home runs. These sponsors understand that their leadership is essential to a winning season. They stand out from other sponsors by owning their projects and maintaining a healthy relationship with their project managers from the beginning to end of their projects.

Sponsors are typically busy senior executives often coming from the C-suite. In addition to the projects they are sponsoring, the executives have many other responsibilities. How is it possible for a sponsor to complete their project work and still have time to perform their other duties? Let’s look at 10 ways sponsors can boost project success.

  1. Clarify and communicate the vision. Joel A. Barker said, “Vision without action is merely a dream. Action without vision just passes the time. Vision with action can change the world.” Unfortunately, many projects are nothing more than a passing of time. If you expect your teams to change the world, clarify and communicate a clear vision. Without vision, your teams will perish.
  2. Fund the projects. As you develop the vision, consider the cost. You may wish to have a business analyst complete a cost/benefit study to support your business case. Make sure the project team has the funds and resources they need.

  3. Engage high-powered/high-interest stakeholders. Sponsors should engage key stakeholders during the development of the project charter. You know the people who you hope don’t find out about the project. Yes, the ones whom you fear will resist and undermine your ideas. Invite them to the table. Have the difficult conversations early.

  4. Understand the sponsor’s role. The best sponsors understand that their greatest value is at the higher levels of the organization, not in the details of the project. Sponsors should rally senior management support, remove roadblocks, and aid with upper-level communication. Staying out of the project details provides the sponsor with more time to fulfill their other duties.

  5. Ensure that the project manager has the right resources. Project managers are often preassigned resources. The project managers are dealt a losing hand sometimes. Sponsors can greatly advance their projects by understanding the knowledge and skills necessary to achieve the project objectives and going to bat to secure the right resources.

  6. Run interference and clear the way. Sponsors can help by anticipating negative attention and criticism that their project managers and teams may receive while performing the required project tasks. Protect the teams from distractions or annoyances by preempting the issues. Share the rationale of the team’s activities with key stakeholders before the teams execute.

  7. Creates an environment where project managers can talk openly about risks. Some people don’t like bad news. Great sponsors create an environment of trust where project managers can share the most significant threats. Project managers should succinctly report the risks (i.e., threats and opportunities) that matter, the response plans, and the effectiveness of the responses. Sponsors can validate that the project remains aligned with their risk appetite.

  8. Remain engaged with the project manager and team. One of the biggest complaints I hear from project managers is how sponsors drift over time. The sponsor is Gung Ho at the kick-off meeting, but they’re lost in the second inning. The project manager, without the backing and authority of the sponsor, is left to move a mountain with a spoon.

  9. Respond promptly. Project teams get into trouble occasionally. The teams encounter situations that are outside of their control. When the project manager escalates an issue to a sponsor, the sponsor should respond with a listening ear and a helping hand.

  10. Reward and recognize the team. Project managers and team members want to know their contributions matter. Sponsors can motivate team members by making occasional visits to team meetings to say a quick thanks. Sponsors can write a hand-written note to the project manager when key project milestones are met. Taking the teams out for lunch at the completion of a project and acknowledging their hard work can go a long way in recharging individual’s batteries for upcoming projects.

Seventh Inning Stretch

What can organizations do to improve the sponsorship of projects and the return on project investments? Here are three ideas. First, organizations should invest in training senior executives in their roles as sponsors. Second, identify and expand the number of sponsors. This strategy not only helps with current projects, but this step will develop more leaders for the future. Third, the sponsors may consider delegating some of your problems or normal duties to others in advance of heavy seasons of project work. Best wishes for your future and keep your eye on the ball!

Question: What practical tips do you have for ensuring consistent communications between the sponsor and the project managers?

Harry Hall, PMP, PMI-RMP, is the Director of Enterprise Risk Management at the Georgia Farm Bureau Mutual Insurance Company, one of the largest domestic insurance companies in the state of Georgia. You can read more from Harry on his blog.

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