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The Project Sponsor is a role of fundamental importance to project success. Unlike the role of the Project Manager, the role of Sponsor role can often be poorly defined. If defined at all. It is not uncommon to find Project Sponsors that have no formal education in project management, and at times they may not even have much in the way of practical project management experience. Sponsors are often appointed based on either their level of seniority in an organisation or their particular level of interest in a project. Not usually on project experience. This variability in the role and in the skills of the role holder means that project managers may have had differing experiences with sponsors and may not know what to expect from new ones.

Why is Project Sponsorship difficult?

The fact that Sponsors are often poorly equipped for the job is not usually a reflection of their managerial capability. More often it’s a reflection of the fact that project management as a discipline rarely permeates upwards through organisations. One of the most common issues project managers report is one of inadequate sponsorship.  While it’s a common problem, it is not an easy or straightforward one to solve.

When a Sponsor acknowledges that they are unsure what the role requires from them, the Project Manager can educate and inform about the usual protocols or governance arrangements for similar or previous projects. Sometimes a Sponsor doesn’t know what they don’t know. Then it can be a much tougher proposition to work through. It can be helpful to seek assistance from other senior leaders and/or project professionals in the organisation. If your organisation has a mature PMO, they will likely be able to help. Project Sponsor training can sometimes help, but beware! Senior executives often don’t appreciate being told they have a skills gap!

Key principles of project sponsorship:

  • The Sponsor owns the outcomes and benefits of the project and should create a vision and a call to arms for delivery
  • The Sponsor has a role is establishing project culture and team engagement, especially in relation to risk and safety management
  • The Sponsor is the bridge to Business as Usual (BAU), it is their job to understand the projects relationship to organisational strategy
  • The Sponsor should be the project champion as far as the business is concerned
  • The Sponsor is the escalation point, the point where the hard decisions must be taken
  • The Sponsor must have an overarching awareness of the project but be comfortable in leaving the project manager to manage
  • The Sponsor should lead the Project Steering Committee to Board (or other relevant governance forums)
  • The Sponsor is accountable for tracking and realising benefits. Full realisation may occur sometime following the completion of the project
  • The Sponsor is not responsible for managing individual project deliverables or for managing the team. This is the role of the Project Manager
  • Good Sponsors are available, active, and engaged. They act as advocate for the project, a coach for the Project Manager and an influencer for the wider business

What can I do as a Project Manager?

As a Project Manager, It is reasonable to expect the Sponsor to assist with providing scarce resources, dealing with issues at an executive level or to support you with assistance from other departments.  Where a Sponsor is unsure of the boundaries of their role, then it can be helpful to talk openly about what you need in relation to the project and how to best resolve any problems. Ultimately there is not much more than that you can do. You can take the horse to water, but you can’t make it drink as the old saying goes. 

As leaders, Project Sponsors are often juggling many different priorities. Your project may be only one of many they are acting as Sponsor on, or they may have a number of other high priority initiatives. This can make It challenging to get what you need, and makes Sponsor communication one of the key focus areas when managing project and programs. A strong relationship and two way, open and honest conversation with your Sponsor is critical to effective project delivery.