Change Sponsorship: Art or Science…?

Can change sponsorship be effective by simply following a set of rules? Or are a much subtler range of skills required?

I would certainly argue a bit of both; key pre-requisites for effective sponsorship are a combination of personal commitment (emotional and time), together with a strong change governance framework within which to function.  

Sponsorship and governance related issues are one of the most common shortfalls that Pelicam encounter whilst conducting assurance assignments. This is evident in our recent analysis of serial project killers, indicating that over two thirds of the project failures we reviewed have been attributed to stakeholder/sponsor behaviour to some degree.   This brief article highlights the key dynamics associated with successful change sponsorship.  Furthermore, it provides both change delivery leaders and sponsors themselves with a series of considerations that can be applied to determine whether sponsorship related ‘conditions for success’ are prevalent within a particular project or programme.

Let’s begin by identifying the dynamics associated with a good sponsor. I believe that Eddie Obeng in his book Perfect Projects* captures these well, defining the ideal sponsor ‘as a person who:

invented the idea and really wants to do it

controls the money

wants the end product or will end up living with it

can provide effective high-level representation, and smooth out the political battles before you get to them

‘owns’ the resources

acts as an effective sounding board/mentor.’

The last of these in my experience is key, and more often than not sadly missing.  An effective sponsor is one with emotional attachment to a project and who provides a combination of support and regular constructive critical challenge to the project manager.

Coming back to the question of ‘Art or Science?’: for me the ‘Art’ dimension is the key prerequisite – the emotional attachment and intellectual investment in understanding the role of the sponsor.   The ‘Science’ dimension is then translating the understanding of the role into day-to-day behaviours. This involves ensuring effective project governance and delivery frameworks are in place; that the project team remains 100% focused on realizing the desired outcomes, and that obstructions and challenges are quickly and decisively resolved.

In terms of specific shortfalls to highlight;the following are those that Pelicam most often encounter as related to project failures:

  • Sponsors don’t necessarily understand what good  sponsorship means (and it is difficult to tell them)
  • Sponsors delegate/ leave  duties, which they should personally handle, to the programme manager
  • Sponsors don’t resolve  senior stakeholder differences
  • Sponsors can be parochial, allowing projects to compete against each other
  • Sponsors can be difficult to engage with / pin down
  • Sponsor commitment wanes over time due to crowded change agenda
  • Sponsors don’t communicate the vision / create the organisational will  and energy
  • Sponsors fail to provide constant reinforcement
  • Sponsors don’t always provide the necessary resources
  • Sponsors don’t like bad or unpalatable news
  • Sponsors don’t provide enough recognition for success
  • Sponsors fail to provide the necessary motivation to the project team
  • Sponsors don’t naturally drive good governance
  • Sponsors put their own reputation and career before the project’s needs
  • Sponsors do not have the gravitas and experience to drive change
  • Sponsors don’t role model the behaviours required
  • Sponsors celebrate success too early,  failing to embed change or realise benefits
  • Sponsors don’t develop meaningful relationships with key suppliers
  • Sponsors move on
  • Sponsors don’t know what questions to ask
  • Successful change sponsorship is thus both an art and a science. The scientific element demands the execution of sponsorship and change roles rigorously and effectively, whilst the artistic side involves knowing how to do that well, which predominantly comes from experience.
  • I am sure that these sponsorship related shortfalls will resonate with many of the readers of this newsletter.   Resolving them can be a very difficult (though rewarding) task, and one that Pelicam are regularly engaged to support. If you are experiencing any of the symptoms highlighted above and would welcome thoughts on how to resolve these, please do not hesitate to get in touch. 



Sponsorship, 2012Katie MayerComment