As many of you know, together with @DKR I’m cycling for charity. We organize our own Gran Fondo’s to raise funds for the #KWF cancer foundation. One of the key enablers for the riders to finish the Gran Fondo is the support from the team crew. They take care of accommodation, routes, stops, food, drinks, medical and technical assistance.

Now, you might wonder, what does this have to do with enabling the project manager to be successful? Well, when deploying projects, who is enabling the project manager to deliver her/his project and accomplish their “ride”? Project sponsorship is the key function to help the project manager.

How to create success

Project managers are expected to deliver the desired/committed benefits to the internal or external customer, manage the internal/external suppliers, manage the expectations of all stakeholders, ensure allocation of skilled resources, manage the budget, and navigate the project through the political landscape.

No matter what methodologies are used to manage the project, a mandate needs to be given to the project manager for leading the project. A good example to provide mandate is the project charter. But does such charter give the project manager suddenly all cards in hand to deliver the project successfully?
Typically, this is not the case, the availability and support from the project sponsor is crucial.

What’s the typical role of a project sponsor?

  • The Sponsor provides executive level management and final accountability to his own company and to the Customer. The Sponsor ensures that any events outside of the project that threatens its success are managed appropriately.
  • Owns the project charter to provide mandate to the project manager to manage the project
  • Provides executive support for the project, acting as a champion or advocate for the project
  • Ensures adequate resources (human, material and financial) are available
  • Is accountable for the internal and external Steering Committee, which provides direction for the project. The sponsor receives executive-level reports from the Project manager to manage its stakeholders
  • The sponsor acts as the ultimate authority in the project — funnels and orchestrates escalations
  • The Project Sponsor has the authority to change the direction of the project, or even stop it, should circumstances demand it. This in consultation with the highest authority in his company

It’s like my experience while riding a Gran Fondo. We faced situations where the route had to be changed because of bad weather, roadworks and a mountain col being closed. The team crew provided rain gear and defined alternative routes.

Insider view and tips

I have been fulfilling the role of the project sponsor on many projects. My key take aways are:

  • Ensure a peer sponsor at the customer side
  • Understand the underlying sentiments of the project. Is there a specific political agenda you need to know
  • Are the desired benefits the real benefits to be delivered? Or is there something else at stake. Sometimes the project benefits are defined as “we want to offer new services to our end user” while cost reduction is the real driver
  • Ensure alignment with your peer sponsor on the before mentioned topics
  • Together with your peer sponsor look at the bigger picture. You are both in the same boat and want to have the project successfully delivered. Of course, contractually the scope has been defined
    But suppose the project is stuck on a resourcing or supplier topic. Perhaps your peer can help through her/his contacts, or they can even help to deliver! You both have the same interest. It goes without saying that the scope change process needs to be activated to secure the agreements made
  • Be transparent, suppose some features which are under development are delayed. Don’t wait till a few days before expected delivery. Communicate early so you can work together on alternatives. Share your development roadmap in an early stage with the customer and involve senior management responsible for the roadmap to create confidence
  • Both project sponsors to play an active role in the Steering Committee meetings, together prepare the meeting carefully, review where project managers need support, define actions, and help to open doors up to executive level as required
  • Ensure close interaction and alignment with the project manager. Speak with one voice. It takes an investment in time!

These take aways are very similar to my experience while riding the Gran Fondo. Communication, teamwork is of utmost importance. You need each other during the ride. Sometimes you have a bad day. Then you need to make yourself vulnerable so others can help you. They can keep you out of the wind. It’s the same in a project, you might doubt how to approach a difficult situation. Your sponsor can help and provide advice.

Stakeholder management and team enablement

On projects there is a risk of “managing by escalation”. Who has not been in the situation that the VP of one organization sends an escalation to his peer in the other organization without the project manager to be aware? It takes the project manager more time to respond to these escalations rather than work on the project itself.
This especially is the case when the project governance is not well defined or not working properly. In these situations, often there is no project sponsor in place. So having a project sponsor in place is a pre-requisite.

Alignment between project sponsors helps to a large extend to avoid “manage by escalation”. However, it’s not only about alignment. It’s also about building credibility and creating trust.

The sponsor role needs an investment in time to be able to manage its organization and to work closely with its peer project sponsor.

Like in a Gran Fondo, the effort pays off. In a Gran Fondo, the team crew creates the right environment for the riders to accomplish the ride with a lot of joy. It’s the same in a project, the sponsor enables the project manager to successfully deliver the expected benefits while reaching high customer satisfaction.