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Reasons for not Having the Right Project Sponsorship (#3 in the series Project Management Mistake – We Didn’t Have The Right Sponsorship)
By Lonnie Pacelli

The project sponsor was either too high or too low in the organization – Just because you have someone that is willing to sponsor your project doesn’t mean that they are the right sponsor for the project. Optimally, your project sponsor should have decision making authority over the in-scope project areas while at the same time being close enough to the work that they understand the implications of the issues that are raised. If your sponsor is too low of a level, they’re unlikely to be able to make decisions that will stick and will have to be getting authorization from their management before committing to decisions. If your sponsor is too high of a level, you’re likely to get decisions made but you’re probably not making best use of management since others at lower levels could be making the decisions you need made.

The project sponsor was being inundated with issues that could have been resolved by a steering committee – In deciding whether or not you need a steering committee, consider what you’re going to need from your project sponsor and whether or not decisions can be made by others at lower management levels. If you are continually bringing issues to your project sponsor that can be addressed by other managers, you run the risk of exasperating your sponsor and being labeled as crying wolf. This will put you in a very difficult situation for when you really need help because your credibility with your project sponsor may be eroded.

You made the project sponsor work too hard to try to understand your project – In the environments that I have worked, I never gave a project sponsor anything other than presentation-type slides when it came to project reviews and requests for help. Typically, your time with the project sponsor is limited and he or she has to understand where things are at and what you need from him or her in an efficient manner. Be very conscious of what you share with the sponsor, how much detail you give him/her and what you want him/her to do for you to help the project succeed.

You walk a fine line here of being credible with your sponsor and giving them the elevator pitch – If you’ve already established credibility with your project sponsor to the point where you’re a trusted project manager, then you can possibly afford to be more high-level in your communications as he or she is going to trust you with the details. If you’re an unknown quantity or (gulp) have gone negative in the credibility column, you’re going to need to be prepared for deep-dives on areas that the project sponsor will want to go. One technique I’ve seen and used is to have appendix slides which have supporting detail in areas where there’s likely to be question. The appendix slides are only meant to be used in the event that a specific question arises to support your claims and would not even be seen if no question arises on the topic.

Being prepared to go through details is important, but there will be the occasional situation where you just don’t know the answer or don’t have supporting detail. Your best bet at that point is to simply say “I don’t know, and I’ll get back to you on with the answer.” It’s much easier to fess up quickly than guess at the answer and later be found wrong. Keep in mind as well that there are only so many “I don’t knows” you can use before your credibility becomes an issue. More than a couple in a meeting can turn into a problem pretty quickly.

You didn’t tell the project sponsor what you need – Working with a project sponsor is a two-way commitment; you need to deliver what the sponsor considers important and they need to help you when you’ve run into an issue you can’t resolve on your own. The issue could be with another organization, a need to change policy, a team member not participating as agreed or a host of other reasons. It’s super important that you are very explicit with what you need the project sponsor to do for you. In your reviews with the project sponsor, it’s helpful to have an “asks” slide which very explicitly lays out what you need the project sponsor to do and when you need it by. As I’ve discussed earlier, make sure that your requests are appropriate for your project sponsor to be addressing. If your requests are inappropriate, you run the risk of exasperating your project sponsor and losing credibility.

You met either too much or not enough with your project sponsor – Depending on the criticality of the project, you may need to meet with the project sponsor either more or less frequently. I’ve been on projects where we’ve met with the project sponsor on a monthly basis for a one-hour update and have also been on projects where we’ve met weekly for an hour or more. You need to decide along with your project sponsor what the right frequency needs to be. I’ve found that meeting at least monthly is important to keeping the sponsor engaged and ensuring project success.

Lonnie Pacelli is an internationally recognized project management and leadership author and consultant with over 20 years experience at Microsoft, Accenture and his own company, Leading on the Edge International. Read more about Lonnie, subscribe to his newsletter, see his books and articles, and get lots of free self-study seminars, webcasts and resources.

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