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I’m a Sponsor. Now What?
By Barry Otterholt

Project sponsors don’t manage projects. They just want things done. And they don’t like details. They just want things done. And they don’t really like bad news. They just want things done. They’ve authorized the money, the staff, and the schedule. Isn’t that enough?

One of the critical success factors most often cited in project management articles is the need for a solid sponsor with sufficient budget authority. I agree. Without solid sponsorship, your job as project manager will be complicated beyond your control.

In most projects, the Sponsor is positioned on the outside of the project organization, and their role is not clearly defined. Further, inexperienced project managers feel any imposition on the Sponsor is a sign of weakness, so tend to leave them alone. This leaves them wondering what their responsibility is, or worse, enjoying their lack of responsibility. So, what is the Sponsor supposed to do?

First, a Sponsor must understand that they own the project and its outcome. It’s necessarily that way. And it’s common sense when you think about it. The Project Manager cannot approve extra money; cannot change an end-date; cannot authorize transfer of human resources from the business organization into the project; cannot cut scope, or add to it for that matter. Those decisions are all the prerogative of the Sponsor. But the Sponsor is typically involved in strategic matters and can’t tend to the details of the project. That’s why you are here. Moreover, many Sponsors have never sponsored a project before. They may be reluctant to ask a subordinate (you) for guidance. Including the Sponsor’s responsibilities in the standard project documentation can help the Sponsor do his or her job. Here are some things you could include:

  • Advocate – The Sponsor should be the strongest advocate of the project and its outcome. They should be alert to opportunities to evangelize the expected benefits, and cultivate an enthusiastic following.
  • Manage by exception – The Sponsor is a “boundary manager”, meaning they entrust the day-to-day activities to the project manager who manages to project objectives. However, an experienced Sponsor makes sure they are alert to issues which could push the boundaries of the project manager’s authority or skill.
  • Manage by the numbers – The Sponsor must know how the project is doing, and the impact of issues on quality, schedule, and resources. This is provided by fresh objective data about remaining work, productivity of resources, and best and worst case schedule scenarios for project completion.
  • Isolate required decisions/actions – Needed actions of the Sponsor are too often hidden amongst other information in the status report. Isolate decisions or actions required of the Sponsor from the rest of the report, and be clear about when the decision or action is needed. Track this as you would any other needed action, and provide a tickler if the date is approaching with no apparent response. It’s generally wise to include a short statement about the consequence of inaction, so they are not caught off-guard when competing priorities might cause them to forget this one.
  • Make timely decisions – If a decisions is required, ask for it. If the Sponsor cannot make it, find out why. Often, some due diligence is required to provide enough context to an issue so a decision can be made. If the Sponsor has insufficient information from which to make the decision, provide it. All decisions are not of equal importance. Make sure you convey the consequence if indecision, in specific terms.
  • Escalation – This relates to timely decisions, but deals specifically with interpersonal or contract conflicts, for which attempts at resolution within the project have failed. You must make clear the consequence of the issue, the facts surrounding the issue, and your recommendation. Mostly importantly, you must state the need for a timely decision or risk unwanted impact to the project.
  • Affirmation – Most project members will say they don’t need strokes, but they do. When you are working hard, the occasional expression of appreciation is welcomed, even inspirational. And an inspired workforce is more productive than one that has fallen into routine.

Outlining these responsibilities will help the Sponsor, and create more open communication with you.

Barry Otterholt, CMC, PMP

Barry Otterholt has been a project management specialist and coach for the past 30 years. He is a Certified Management Consultant (CMC) and a Project Management Professional (PMP). He works with both public and private sector companies in the USA, Europe and Scandinavia. Mr. Otterholt was a Director with Microsoft, a senior consultant with Deloitte Consulting, and a COO with a nationwide consumer electronics enterprise. In 1988 he founded Public Knowledge, LLC to provide independent management and operational support to the public sector. More recently, he founded Stouffer & Company, LLC to provide as-needed project management services to fill an obvious skills gap in both private and public sectors.

Mr. Otterholt is an adjunct professor teaching project management at Northwest University. His essays on project management have been published in PMI newsletters. His runs a blog, Project Management Essays, where he muses about various project management topics.

Mr. Otterholt is a member of the Institute of Management Consultants (IMC) and the Project Management Institute (PMI). He has a BA in Accounting and Computer Science and an MBA in Business Administration. He lives in the beautiful Pacific Northwest.

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