Sponsoring a Project

Project Sponsorship | By Dave Nielsen | Read time minutes

Sponsor grunge rubber stamp on white background

The project sponsor is perhaps the second most influential person on the project, after the project manager and in some cases may even wield more influence on project results than the project manager. There is an abundance of knowledge available to the project manager, one of the main sources is PMBOK (Project Management Body of Knowledge) published by the Project Management Institute (PMI), but little exists for the project sponsor. The more the sponsor knows about the discipline of project management the easier the role of project sponsor becomes, but sponsors don't have to be trained project managers in order to fill their role adequately. Here are a few tips that may help the project sponsor to bring their next project in on-time, on-budget, and on-scope.

Choose the Right Project Manager

Choosing the right project manager is one of the most important decisions the sponsor is called on to make, second in importance only to choosing the right project. Choosing the right project manager during initiation will start the project off on the right foot and keep it on track. Choosing the wrong one will de-rail the project early on and recovery will be difficult even if the right project manager is brought in to take over.

Start with a project manager who has the right training. The gold standard for project management excellence is the PMP (Project Management Professional) offered by the PMI. Choose a project manager who is a certified PMP if the budget allows. Don't despair if your organisation lacks PMP certified project managers there are many excellent PMP courses, or PMP exam preparation training products available at a wide range of prices. Investigate a training programme for your in-house PMs.

The decision is easy in cases where the project is similar to ones that one or more project managers have successfully completed in the past. Choosing becomes more difficult in the case where the project is unlike anything the organisation has attempted in the past. In this case the project sponsor will want to identify a project manager who at least has experience in projects with a similar degree of size (the size of the project team and budget) and complexity. Over matching a project manager with a project that is much larger and more complex than anything they've experienced in the past can ruin both project and project manager.

Look for project managers who have experience in the technology being used or delivered by the project. Don't look for an exact match because that isn't necessary, but do look for similar experience: the ideal project manager may not have experience with web sites developed by Dreamweaver, but may have a wealth of experience with some other web development tool. The project team needs experience with the tools and technology, not the project manager. When the choice is between the project manager with experience in projects of the right size and complexity and one with experience in the technology, choose the one with experience in large complex projects.

You may be undertaking a project that is a "one off" which is a far greater size and complexity than anything your organisation has done before, or is likely to do again. The temptation is to hire a project manager for the project and keep that skill set and experience in house. This may be a very expensive way to acquire the experience you need. The salary this person will demand will be greater than the salary commensurate with the smaller, simpler projects your organisation is used to, and you may find the experienced project manager is off to greener pastures at the worst time. Avoid this situation by considering engaging a consultant to manage the project. Consultants usually offer a greater depth of experience and their cost can be justified by the size of the project budget and the risks entailed with entrusting that budget to a less experienced in-house PM. Consultants should be able to coach or mentor an in-house project manager. Consider assigning an in-house PM to the project in the role of a Project Administrator or Assistant Project Manager so they can absorb the skills of the consultant. Make the coaching part of the services the consultant is paid for and measure the consultant's success in advancing the skills of the in-house PM, as well as successful completion of the project.

Championing the Project

Projects are unlike operational activities in the organisation in that they have no representation in the organisational chart (unless project management is your organisation's core competency). This means that the project has no political clout in the organisation beyond that which the project manager gives it. This will be especially true where the project is being managed by a consultant who has absolutely no political power in the organisation chart. You have the ability to make up for that lack of clout by championing the project.

Be a visible presence in key project meetings starting with the project kick-off. This is your opportunity to show the organisation the importance you attach to this project. Volunteer to speak to some of the agenda items at the kick-off meeting such as the project's history, the project's goals and objectives, elements that must be in place for project success, or success criteria for the project. Work with the project manager to determine which agenda items you will speak to and which they will speak to. The goal here is to lend your political weight to the project and project manager, not to move them to the background. Having said that, I know of no project manager who wouldn't be delighted to have a project sponsor play a role in their kick-off meeting.

You should be the key signatory on the Project Charter. Make certain that you read that document and are comfortable that the project goals and objectives have been accurately captured. You should also ensure that you are comfortable with the approach the PM intends to use in managing the project. The approach description should cover the project management processes and procedures they intend to use as well as the software methodology, tools, technology, and QA processes they will use. Lastly, ensure that the roles, responsibilities, and authority described in the Charter are reasonable, especially the project manager's authority. Your project manager will include (or should include) references to their level of authority because they intend to use it. You should be comfortable with the level they claim and stand behind them when they exercise it. Ensure that the Project Charter is not held up by signers, other than you, who are slow to sign. Help your PM and the project by pushing for their feedback and signatures.

Don't limit your championing to the kick-off meeting. You need to be present for all the key meetings such as gate/phase exit review/business decision point meetings. Make a point of being present at any general information sessions that are held as part of your project's Communications Plan. Championing the project also includes going toe-to-toe with your peers for the resources critical to the project. Your project manager may come to you with complaints about other projects or operational groups raiding critical project resources. This is your opportunity to show the organisation the importance you attach to the project by preventing the raids. Your peers may have raided critical resources for projects or operational tasks that your organisation has determined have a higher priority than your project. You will need to communicate that decision and its reasons to the project manager and be prepared for the change request that will be forthcoming.

You have a key role to play on the project's Change Control Board (CCB). This is the body that makes decisions on change requests that exceed the PMs authority to decide upon. The criteria for asking the CCB to decide on a change request should be in the Change Management Plan. You will need to make yourself available to review requested changes and for meetings where a decision is rendered. Your role as project champion should mean that you influence decisions so that they are made in the best interests of your project.

You may not be the most senior executive with a role to play on the project, large projects may have an Executive Steering Committee which provides executive oversight to the project. You are still the project champion in this environment, even if the company CEO is a member of the Steering Committee.

Review all the project plans with your PM and ensure that they meet with your approval. They should align with the high level information contained in the project Charter, but they will contain the details of all the tasks, roles, and responsibilities that will deliver the project's goals and objectives and provide the "how to" information for implementing the approach described in the Charter.

Make yourself available if your PM asks for your presence in giving awards to project team members who have excelled at some project task. Don't be too shy to ask to be part of the ceremony if your PM doesn't make the offer. Your very presence will lend the award an importance that cannot be given any other way. Awards that appear small in monetary terms can take on a disproportionate importance when presented by the project sponsor. You are the most influential project team member because of your position in the organisation, using your influence to turn an award ceremony into a "state occasion" is one of the most pleasurable ways of using that influence that I know of.

The best way of championing the project is by taking ownership of it. You may already feel ownership by virtue of your degree of responsibility for the project results, but true championing goes beyond this. You should feel like the owner of a professional sports team, taking pride in the team's accomplishments and taking negative comments made about the project or project team personally. Be the project's good will ambassador and correct any misconceptions that negative comments may have made on your peers.

Your Relationship with the PM

Your ultimate responsibility for the project requires you to get the best results possible from the project manager. To achieve this you need to establish a good working relationship with your project manager. A good relationship is going to require some of your time in face-to-face meetings with your project manager. You should meet with the PM at least once a week and more often is desirable. You may want to establish an informal weekly meeting for status updates and then drop in on the PM periodically for informal chats about the project. Frequent contact will encourage the open communications you need.

You are your PM's escalation point. When they encounter problems on the project that they are incapable of resolving, they should come to you for help. Ensure they understand that they are encouraged to come to you as soon as they become aware of the need for your help and when you still have the ability to correct the problem. There is nothing worse than having the PM come to you in fear and trepidation with a problem that could have been easily remedied last week, but has become a major catastrophe with the passage of time. Establish a "we don't shoot the messenger" environment so that the PM is encouraged to ask for your help in a timely fashion.

Don't hesitate to remove the project manager if it becomes apparent to you that the PM is over-matched with the project. Doing this may mean that your reputation suffers with your peers, especially if the PM was hand picked by you, but "pulling the trigger" on this decision early may mean the difference between salvaging the project and having the project fail. Pulling the project manager out of a situation they were not adequately prepared for can also salvage the project manager's self respect, if done properly. The goal should be to salvage the project, not the public castigation of the PM. Salvaging the PMs career should also be a goal. Explain the delta between the experience and skill set required to manage the project (and the ones you believed they had) and their experience and skills. Offer suggestions on how they can close the delta. You may have to work with this person in the future so do your best to part on good terms. All bets are off if the PM is a consultant. You owe no obligation to this person beyond your contractual obligation. You may want to review the reasons for dismissing the PM with your HR department or any agencies you used.

Do not dismiss the current project manager until a replacement possessing the experience and skills necessary for the project has been identified and is ready to start. You don't want to have to cover for a project manager or have someone else who isn't qualified cover for them.

Project Oversight

You have the ultimate responsibility for making sure that your project delivers on all its promises and to do this you need to make sure that the project is running smoothly from project inception to project close out. Start by making sure that the goals and objectives are all feasible and that the project is adequately resourced to achieve them. If you have doubts about the feasibility of achieving a goal, question your PM. Explain your doubts and ask them how they will go about achieving it. If they aren't able to explain their approach to your satisfaction, ask for proof of their ability to deliver such as past projects. Don't be afraid to re-vector the project's goals and objectives or budget during the planning phase of the project. If worst comes to worst and the business case proves to be flawed, don't be afraid to end the project. A project terminated during the planning phase before major funds are spent won't be viewed as a major failure, but a project that spends the budget without delivering on its goals and objectives will be.

All project plans should be aligned with the project Charter and capable of delivering the project's goals and objectives on time and within the defined budget if they are properly followed. Pay particular attention to the schedule and Change Management Plans. Is the completion date what you expect to see? Do the other dates align with the final completion date and do they seem reasonable? Does the Change Management Plan provide for adequate communication? Will there be an appropriate process for minor changes as well as major ones? Does the plan describe an adequate decision making process and body? The plans are the PMs blueprint for completing the project so if there are any shortcomings in those plans they will evidence themselves in project failures.

The project's Communications Management Plan is a key to your oversight of the project. This plan should detail what project information will be communicated to you and how often. It may also tell you how it will be tracked, how it will be retrieved, and how it will be reported. The reports that are described in this plan are your indicators of project health. The reports must provide you with adequate information to make major decisions about the project. Look for some form of report on the project's overall performance, the project's SPI (Schedule Performance Index), the CPI (Cost Performance Index), information on the number of changes accepted and their cost, the current project risks and their mitigation strategies, and quality metrics. Satisfy yourself that the information will be sufficient to give you an early warning of problems with project health, early enough for you to take corrective action if need be.

Set triggers with your PM. The triggers I'm referring to here are points at which corrective action will be taken. Let's take the project schedule as an example. The Schedule Performance Index tells you whether the project is on schedule or not (an SPI of <1.0 indicates a project behind schedule). Define an SPI at which the PM will take corrective action, or a trend that would trigger a preventive action. Ensure the PM has implemented a corrective action, or has a plan to implement one if the SPI is at or below the trigger level. Discuss the action with your PM and satisfy yourself that the action will be successful at correcting the problem. The same principal applies to all facets of project performance. Look for trends in the performance metrics that would indicate your project is trending towards problems. Capturing historical information in reports facilitates spotting trends, and when you spot a trend towards poor performance, question the PM about a preventive action.

Demand that your PM take responsibility for keeping the project's Business Case up to date. Review the Business Case with your PM at regular intervals, at a minimum before each gate/phase exit review/business decision point. Are the business benefits still obtainable? Has the market changed such that the benefits the project was to deliver are no longer feasible? Have the forecast costs of the project changed? The decision on whether to proceed to the next project phase will be made at the gate review meeting, phase exit review meeting, or business decision point meeting, but you can prepare your PM for a "no-go" decision and avoid turning that meeting into a shambles. A decision to terminate the project should not come as a surprise to anyone in the meeting. The decision doesn't necessarily have to come at a phase end/phase beginning, it can come at any time if the information you have would mean that the project's benefits are no longer feasible, or the Return on Investment (ROI) is no longer acceptable.


Sponsoring a project starts with your selection of a project manager. Take great care in this selection as your PM will be the person at the project controls and you need to assure yourself that this person has the skills and experience necessary to control your project. Having selected the right project manager for the job, make sure they have adequate support. You have a tremendous influence over the project and the project manager so make sure you use it. Don't turn the keys over to the project manager and walk away and expect the PM to deliver a perfect result to you at the end of the project; provide the kind of oversight which will catch the small problems before they become big ones and then work with your PM to solve them. Be the project Champion; your interest, attention, and enthusiasm can infect the project team and have a positive affect on performance. Lastly, encourage your PM to escalate problems to you that you can resolve as soon as they become aware of them. Demonstrate your willingness to roll your sleeves up to solve the problem without "shooting the messenger".


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