It’s no secret that project managers don’t hold all the authority that is required to keep a project on the right path during its lifespan. They need sponsors to, at times, approve more resources, additional time, cast the final vote on a split decision situation, limit end users’ sprawling needs, and participate in resolving lots of unforeseen issues.
Sponsors will always say they are committed to the project’s success and in their mind they mean it; however, during the life of a project their actions may say otherwise. It’s mostly true they are committed to the project but their other commitments may take a higher priority. They care but not as much as they care about other things.
As a result, project managers find themselves in situations where their sponsors are unavailable. If the sponsor is available then they may not make decisions quickly enough. If they do make decisions they may not be well thought out and go in a direction the project manager does not recommend.
Project managers who find themselves in these situations can get very frustrated. They are committed to the project’s success and know their project is being hurt by the sponsor. Because they care so much they often choose to overstep their bounds and take actions to keep the project on the right path. This leads to project managers doing things without telling their sponsor as well as keeping information from them. These are telltale signs that a project manager cares more than the sponsor.
So, is it bad for a project manager to care more about a project than their sponsor does? Well, there is no black or white answer to this question that accommodates all situations. The real question project managers should be asking is, “will my actions, when caring too much, put me in a more difficult situation than if I stayed within my bounds and let the natural consequences fall as they may?” If project managers ask this question the answer will most always be yes. By caring more than their sponsor project managers risk harming the relationship, being held liable for making decisions they do not have authority to make, and being devious by withholding information.
Rachael had been a project manager for years and had a very good track record at delivering results. This was the first time she worked with Devon as the project sponsor. As usual the project started off well but soon ran into a few issues that Rachael needed Devon to help resolve. Rachael had a very difficult time getting Devon to engage the issues and help resolve them. Devon was habitually unresponsive and after a while Rachel’s frustrations hit a peak. She began to rely on her experience to get things done without Devon’s involvement. She felt justified in doing this as she did not want an unsuccessful project to taint her reputation. Most of the decisions Rachael made were solid but one of them came back to haunt her. She did her best to keep the situation hidden by making sure Devon was kept out of the loop, only to see the situation explode, attracting the attention of Devon. When he became abreast of the situation Devon asked question after probing question that painted a clear picture of how much Rachael kept him in the dark and worked around him. Rachael was forced off the project and had to be transferred to another department once management was briefed.
Now we know what caring too much looks like; let’s look what caring just enough entails. The first thing project managers need to do is work on obtaining the right mindset. They are in a no win situation and have to believe that they stand a much better chance of success by staying within their bounds by not assuming the authority of their sponsor. Also, success will come from staying in the light and avoiding the dark where information is withheld from a sponsor. In fact, providing the sponsor with an overabundance of information is actually best. Lastly, project managers should not attempt to coerce their sponsor into getting involved, taking action, or taking the action the project manager wants. In extreme cases this will annoy the sponsor and could cause them to become even further removed from the project. As was stated earlier, this is a no win situation. In taking these steps the project will be impacted if the sponsor chooses to not get involved and take appropriate action. Here again, having the correct mindset helps deal with this situation. A project manager is better off with this course of action than they would be if they cared too much and went underground.
Matching a project manager’s level of caring to their sponsor’s is not easy. It is all about the way it is made sense of in the project manager’s head. This view may be extremely counter intuitive to the way project managers have operated and got ahead in the past. That’s OK. Even if they just become more aware and observant of the pitfalls of caring too much they will be better off. The aim here is to help project managers stay off the path of deceit and possible unemployment.
Ben Snyder is the CEO of Systemation, (www.systemation.com), a project management, business analysis, and agile development training and consulting company that has been training professionals since 1959. Systemation is a results-driven training and consulting company that maximizes the project-related performance of individuals and organizations. Known for instilling highly practical, immediately usable processes and techniques, Systemation has proven to be an innovative agent of business transformation for many government entities and Fortune 2000 companies, including Verizon Wireless, Barclays Bank, Mattel, The Travelers Companies, Bridgestone, Amgen, Wellpoint and Whirlpool.