Sponsorship is a bit like driving
Very few of us would readily admit that we were poor drivers, but we all know there is plenty of poor driving around. It’s a bit like that with sponsorship of major projects, very few senior individuals will admit to being poor sponsors but .....
We explored this issue of sponsorship at our recent Intelligent Projects Forum event to try to acquire a better understanding of how deeply rooted sponsorship problems are across industry today. Not surprisingly, there was a consistent view from the industry leaders present that poor sponsorship continues to be one of the major causes of project failure. Pelicam can back this up following an analysis of around 50 project healtchecks during recent years where poor sponsorship was found to be common across most of the nine serial project killers that we often refer to.
This being the case, one is left wondering why, as these are the individuals who are accountable (or should be) for project success and given their senior status as senior individuals one would expect that they would have the skills, experience and gravitas to grasp this sponsor role.
The group talked about educating sponsors, ensuring that they understand what good sponsorship means, but this can be difficult, even career limiting. For example, should an emerging project manager suggest this at their first one-to- one session with their sponsor it may not be well received, so we need to be more discreet than this! A couple of organisations present said that they had tried “sponsorship training/coaching”, but the people who volunteered were actually the more capable sponsors. Those who really needed the coaching didn’t volunteer, i.e. the poor driving analogy.
The general consensus of the group was that the relationship between project manager and sponsor is vitally important. So, if we agree that it may not always be straightforward to get our sponsor’s properly equipped, we can help our project managers by ensuring their toolkit includes “how to get the most from my sponsor”. We considered three areas -
1. The first is the development of the relationship between project manager and sponsor such that regular and ad-hoc conversations are taking place and that healthy challenge is viewed as positive.
2. The second area to focus on is to ensure there is clear delineation of duties between the sponsor and project manager. One of the most common problems we see with sponsors is that they delegate too many of their duties to the project manager, and given that the project managers are usually in a more junior role in the organisation they find it difficult to push back. This is where the project manager needs to demonstrate courage (an important behaviour for all good project managers) as well as skilful influencing techniques.
3. Thirdly, a good project manager will need to demonstrate understanding from a business perspective as this will help the sponsor/project management dialogue.
By addressing these three areas, the project manager will be in a stronger position to get what he/she needs from the sponsor. Not the perfect answer to the problem by any means but it goes some way and would likely reduce the stress levels currently tolerated.
The group agreed that it’s not that sponsors in today’s business world are incompetent, more that there is such a crowded business change agenda that they don’t often have the headroom to properly discharge their responsibilities as sponsor. So this really becomes a strategic boardroom issue. All organisations have a change agenda, so their challenge is to ensure that it has the right resources to fulfil the change requirements, i.e. can they properly manage their portfolio of change. In many cases we believe it can’t and that they are taking on too much which manifests itself in poor sponsorship and failure.
The next IPF forum is planned for September at which we will be aiming to provide some practical solutions to the issue or poor driving, ... sorry poor sponsorship.