Project Expert: Project Sponsors Need More Than Executive Title

Only Leaders Need Apply

Since every project is a speculative undertaking that will consume valuable resources, every project needs an effective leader -- the committed sponsor. Even if the project has a reasonable budget and a lineup of talented people, it must have a sponsor who will devote the skills, time and personal commitment necessary for its success. It's also imperative that the sponsor have the requisite level of business authority.

The single most important question to ask a prospective sponsor is this one: Can you make 80% of the decisions without approval from higher-ups? If the sponsor has to continually approach a higher court to resolve project issues, the project will flounder.

There is a common, but highly misguided, belief that as individuals rise to executive positions, they automatically qualify to become project sponsors. But being an effective sponsor is a learned skill -- and not every executive is prepared for the responsibility it involves. Project sponsors need to take on a long list of tasks, from ensuring the project is aligned with business strategy to understanding project complexity, ensuring stakeholder buy-in and achieving stated project objectives.

They must know where the political minefields are and how to navigate them. They must budget adequate time to stay involved with the project and to continually assess the project's health, i.e., read its strategic and tactical vital signs. Yet too many sponsors seem to believe their role is limited to authorizing the budget and occasionally connecting with the team.

Recently, a vice president of sales at a cosmetics company wanted to know the top five questions he should be able to answer about a project he was ready to sponsor. I gave him the following list:

  • What is the project trying to accomplish?
  • What will success look like?
  • What are key stakeholders' expectations?
  • Is there customer buy-in?
  • How is the project team performing?

Then I added two bookend questions: Is the project aligned with appropriate strategy? And, what are the project shut-down conditions? He considered these to be far beyond his capabilities and wanted to know if the sponsorship could be delegated to an IT manager. My answer was "No!" This was a cross-boundary project -- one that involved Web-based marketing, sales, billing and customer support -- and as such, he needed to sponsor it. He had the requisite hierarchical authority to make it a success.

Educating Business Executives

A survey of 175 IT organizations by the Center for Project Management in mid-2004 revealed that not one had a program to educate business executives about becoming effective sponsors. CIOs and other technology managers sponsored close to 90% of the projects. Some of the explanations given:

  • Business executives just aren't interested.
  • Business executives do not have the time or inclination to attend sponsorship education seminars.
  • Business executives believe that any project that involves IT components should be sponsored by technology managers.

As a result, all too often sponsorship responsibility falls into the laps of CIOs and other IT managers, who should be called upon to lead only the technology infrastructure projects. This is one reason why close to 30% of projects fail and an additional 40% are considered to be challenged.

My advice to all CIOs is to work with their business counterparts, put in place a well-structured sponsorship education program and be prepared to provide mentoring to first-time project sponsors.

This was first published in April 2005

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