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The Framework of the Project Sponsor Role – What the Project Needs from the Project Sponsor Role (#3 in the series Looking for Your Sponsor? The PRINCE2™ Project Board Approach to Senior Management Engagement)
By Jay Siegelaub – MBA, PMP, PRINCE2

First and foremost, for a project to have a significant chance of success, senior management needs to demonstrate its commitment to the project. It has to be more than just “I’ll do whatever you want,” or a general indicated “interest” in the project. The commitment has to be based on a clear understanding of what the job entails – on well-defined responsibilities. Management needs to convey to the organization and the project manager that “we want this project to succeed, and we will do what is necessary to make that happen.” Commitment puts management weight behind the project manager’s requests for information and resources, and conveys serious interest in the project, so the project manager can focus on the work at hand. It shows the project manager that his/her work is important to the organization and is taken seriously.

The natural adjunct to commitment is accountability. Accountability is about consequences, whether the project goes well or badly. The project needs those who want the project to happen – who have said they are committed to the project – to be prepared to accept the consequences of the project’s outcome. Accountability demonstrates commitment, and is the key incentive for senior managers to take their responsibilities seriously. Managers who are being held accountable are likely to get involved when their authority or expertise is needed, since project failure would affect them directly. But what does being accountable – or not – tell us about the seriousness of the project request? Consider: why are valuable and limited funds being spent if the people who have requested the project, or for whom the project is being done, don’t want to be accountable for the results? Calling for accountability highlights, reinforces and reflects commitment. Since the project manager is already being held accountable, shared accountability generates a true team effort in solving the business’ problem.

The project needs more than one type of senior management perspective to provide guidance to the project. Here is where the role of Sponsor – i.e., only one Sponsor – turns into roles (in the multiple). Most projects need three distinct knowledge/ management/ experience perspectives:

  • a business perspective – assessing whether the project is providing value to the organization as a whole, and providing the funding to obtain that value;
  • user perspective – establishing that the project is meeting the needs of the people who will be directly working with the project’s outputs; and
  • supplier perspective – providing confidence that the project’s outputs (from which value will be derived) can be achieved with available resources, and at the required level of quality.

These roles do not have to be filled by the actual creators or users of the outputs. The purpose of these roles is to represent their respective interests. Each perspective reflects a different dimension of the project in terms of resources provided to the project; understanding of organizational, user, and developer needs (for decision-making on ongoing project viability); and weighing project results. Each has its own assessment of what “success” means – and all three together define project success. Selecting the right people for these roles means decisions are made with the appropriate knowledge, experience, and authority to evaluate the project properly.

A major problem cited by project managers in most project environments is the difficulty of obtaining and unreliability of keeping necessary developmental resources. How can we move the project along smoothly when we can’t be sure whether we have the resources to do the work? Many of the required resources will be from the organization that has requested the project. Others will come from a ‘supplier’ organization – those contracted (either internally or externally) to do the ‘construction’ work. We are looking for senior managers who control the resources we need – i.e., with authority – engaged in the project. If they are committed to the project, that would go a long way towards the project manager’s having access to and control over those required resources. When authority is combined with accountability, we have people with the resources being held accountable for the project’s success. That is the appropriate combination: if they have authority, shouldn’t they be held accountable for the results of what their resources deliver? This is balanced off during the project by the Sponsors giving the project manager, usually held solely accountable, the authority (control) over the resources needed to do the work. Here we are considering: if the people who have asked for project and/or who are needed to do the construction work are not willing to commit their resources to the project – then (again) why are we doing this project?

We need those engaged managers to make decisions at key points in the process. The core decisions are about the viability of the project, from each of the perspectives discussed above. Ultimately, from the PRINCE2™ point of view, the decision is about whether the project is adding value to the organization (from the business perspective), with critical input about usability (user’s perspective) and do-ability (supplier’s perspective).
In understanding what the project needs, all of these factors have to be considered together. That is what guides PRINCE2™ in designing these roles and responsibilities to address and help resolve major project shortcomings – the major project risks. We need managers who can represent three distinct perspective on the viability of the project, who want the project to succeed, can provide the core required resources, and who are committed to – and accountable for –making project decisions. This is significant requirements list – yet it reflects what a project needs for success. Our goal is to address the major project risks (mentioned above), and these requirements provide a roadmap towards project success by being a solid base for risk mitigation.

Jay Siegelaub has over 30 years of professional experience delivering and supporting projects in information technology, insurance systems, banking, and nonprofit strategic planning, as well as in the pharmaceutical, financial service, consulting, and consumer products industries. As a recognized educator he has trained thousands of project managers over the past 23 years, including 13 years as the Project Management tutorial instructor for the Drug Information Association.

Jay’s recent responsibilities included leading the North American Change Management and Training practices for a UK-based management consulting firm, training corporate consulting professionals in project and program management, and supporting clients in managing the “people” issues of their business change initiatives. He has authored articles on training, project management and information technology for various publications, and often presents at conferences, including the PMI North American Congress (1999, and 2004 – 2007), ProjectWorld and ProjectSummit.

In addition to his PMP® certification, Jay has his MBA in Organization Management from New York University’s Stern School of Business, and is an accredited PRINCE2™ Practitioner, Instructor and Examiner. He has taught and consulted in PRINCE2™ in North America for 10 years (the first US-accredited PRINCE2™ instructor), and worked for the company (and with the authors) that wrote the PRINCE2™ Manual for the UK government.

He has provided Change Management and Project Management consulting and training (including PRINCE2) to companies such as Sun Microsystems, NATO, the United Nations Development Programme, Bechtel, IBM, Philip Morris, Credit Suisse, JPMorganChase and Diageo.

Jay also consults in Organizational and Professional Development.

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