The role of the project sponsor
The role of the project sponsor has not been given much attention in project management literature and lore. This is strange because most project managers will attest to the importance of having an effective project sponsor. So here’s a question: what differentiates an effective sponsor from an ineffective one? Well, obviously involvement in the project is important – an indifferent sponsor won’t be much help at all. But what kind of involvement is required? A recent paper entitled Governance and Support in the Sponsoring of Projects and Programs, by Lynn Crawford and others, explores the formal and informal aspects of the sponsorship role, with a view to defining what makes an effective sponsor. This post is an annotated summary of the paper.
In their introduction, the authors state that, “convincing evidence demonstrates that success or failure of projects is not entirely within the control of the project manager and project team. Contextual issues are crucial in influencing the progress and outcomes of a project, and a key theme that has emerged is the support of top management.” In addition to this, the authors recognise the increasing focus on corporate governance adds another dimension to the role of the sponsor – that of ensuring that the project is aligned with corporate policies and, more generally, any relevant regulatory requirements.
The paper aims to provide a comprehensive view of project sponsorship by looking at the role from the perspective of sponsors, project managers, team members and other project stakeholders. The conclusions were based on interviews with assorted stakeholders selected from 36 projects across different geographical regions. The diversity of data enabled the authors to construct a conceptual model of the sponsor role. As hinted at in the previous paragraph, the model views the role as consisting of two independent perspectives: that of the organisation (governance) and that of the project (support).
In true academic fashion, the authors present a comprehensive review of the literature on project sponsorship. Broadly, the literature may be divided into two areas: standards and research papers. The authors find that project management standards provide sparse material on the role of the sponsor. Specifically, the PMBOK views the sponsor in the context of a single project – and mainly in the role of a financier. The standard makes no reference to the wider organisational context in which the project plays out. Other standards such as the OPM and Program / Portfolio Management Standards provide a limited discussion of the sponsor as project champion, but these too, completely overlook the organisational context of the role. Other standards such as those from the APM and OGC have a more rounded view of the role.
In recent years the project sponsor role has been getting increased attention from project and general management researchers, as evidenced by the increasing number of papers published on the topic. In the author’s words, “Initial understanding of the role of the project executive sponsor as the person or group responsible for approving finance has gradually been expanded to include many other key functions that appear to be directly related to project success.” Some of these include:
- Ensuring availability of resources.
- Achieving and maintaining buy-in of senior management.
- Getting political support for the project.
- Serving as a “project critic”.
The literature also identifies the following characteristics of successful project sponsors:
- Appropriate seniority and power in the organisation.
- Political skill.
- Connections and influence in the organisation.
- Ability to motivate
- Excellent communication skills
- Ability to work with people at different levels in the organisation and the project team.
Yet, despite the importance of the role, many organisations do not nominate sponsors for all their projects. From their literature review, the authors conclude that although there is an increasing recognition of the importance of the sponsorship role, it remains largely unexplored. Their paper is intended to be a step towards filling this gap.
The authors conducted their research in two phases. In the first phase, they performed five independent studies aimed at identifying:
- Attributes contributing to effective sponsorship
- The influence of sponsorship on project success
- Competencies required of project sponsors
- The sponsorship role in the context of organisational, program and project governance
- A model of factors contributing to the effective performance of the sponsorship role
The researchers were able to identify common themes that emerged from all of the independent studies. This commonality enabled the researchers to build a conceptual model of the sponsorship role, which was then tested against data gathered in the second phase of the research. The details of the research methodology, as fascinating as they may be for professional researchers, are of little interest to the practising project manager. So, I’ll leave it there, and move on to a discussion of the model.
The project sponsor role straddles two organisational entities: the project and the sponsoring organisation. From the perspective of the project, the main function of the sponsor is to provide support (e.g. champion the project); from the organisational perspective it is to ensure appropriate governance (e.g. compliance with regulations and corporate policy). The authors therefore model the role along two complementary, yet independent, dimensions – support and governance. The dimensions complement each other in that “the act of governing the project requires that the project be looked at from the perspective of the parent organisation (governance), and the act of providing top management support requires looking at the parent organisation from the perspective of the project (support).” Although complementary, one can conceive of situations where one might exist without another – think of an overly regulated organisation, for example – so they are independent as well.
To a large extent, which dimension is emphasised depends on the situation – and a canny sponsor recognises what a particular situation demands. For example, a sponsor may need to emphasise governance if a project has regulatory implications. On the other hand, she may need to emphasise support if some aspects of the parent organisation are impeding project progress. In principle, one can describe all possible sponsor perspectives in a two dimensional plane described by the coordinates (governance, support): the former describing the interests of the parent organisation and the latter the interests of the project. The paper does not describe the framework any further, although the authors do mention that future papers will fill in more detail.
The authors then present a long discussion of the two perspectives, discussing specific situations in which they may be appropriate. In essence, from a governance perspective the sponsor needs to ensure that the interests of the parent organisation are served by the project, whereas from a support perspective he or she needs to champion the project within the larger organisation. Specific examples of each are easy to find, and are left as an exercise for the reader.
It is interesting that the model presented is akin to some existing theories of management and leadership. A well-known example is the managerial grid model proposed by Blake and Mouton in 1964. In the grid model, the two dimensions are (the welfare of) People and (the maximisation of) Production, and an effective leader displays concern for both. Recent research, however, provides only limited support for the hypothesis that high-people and high-production leaders are more effective than others. In fact, Yukl suggests that people-related factors such as interpersonal relationships and teamwork are more important. A good leader should be able to “guide and facilitate” by fostering relationships and teamwork within the organisation. The congruence between the grid model (and others of its ilk) and the present sponsor model is false, and managerial effectiveness should be seen as a third dimension (in addition to Support and Governance).
So what are the attributes of a good “guide and facilitator” as it pertains to project sponsorship? The authors identify the following from their data:
- Good communication skills.
- Commitment to the project.
- Position and influence in the parent organisation.
- Is available when needed
In terms of practical help, the most important of these attributes is availability. In the words of one of the survey respondents, “The sponsor must be accessible. It doesn’t help if you have a sponsor who kind of reports to God and you never get to see them…” I’m sure many project managers will be able to relate to this.
The paper presents a conceptual model of the project sponsorship role, based on an analysis of existing project and general management literature, and data gathered from diverse project environments. The model views the role as being made up of two independent functions: support and governance. These functions represent the perspective of the temporary organisation (the project) and the permanent one (the parent organisation) respectively. It is also interesting that the two functions can, at times (or should I say, often?), lead to conflicting demands on a sponsor. The authors end the paper stating that analysis of data and work on the model continue. I look forward to seeing a further elaboration of their model in the future.
To end, a few quick words about relevance of the paper to practising project managers. From the practitioner’s perspective, the paper is worth a read because it spells out the full range of responsibilities of a project sponsor in very clear terms. In short, after reading this paper you’ll know what to say when a sponsor of your project wanders over and asks, “What do you need from me?”
Crawford, Lynn., Cooke-Davis, Terry., Hobbs, Brian., Labuschagne, Les., Remington, Kaye., Chen, Ping., Governance and Support in the Sponsoring of Projects and Programs, Project Management Journal, 39 (S1), 43-55. (2008).