Five Attributes of Successful Project Sponsors

by Joanne Vatz, PMP | Bio | Contact

Over the years, Cirdan Group has conducted multiple IV&V engagements that include efficacy reviews of project governance activities, and we are always surprised by the substantial differences we see, both stylistically and managerially, of how individual project sponsors conduct their work.  We see sponsors who are hands-on, hands-off, willing, unwilling, domain experts, domain novices, highly technical, not technical, highly political, tuned in, tuned out, executives, middle managers; they’re all there.  

Not only do we see a wide variety of techniques employed for project sponsorship, but we also meet a fair number of what we will call “novice” project sponsors, who appear to be unclear about what their roles are, uncomfortable in performing their roles, and lacking the requisite tools or talents to perform project sponsorship effectively.  So for those of you project sponsors who want to be better contributors to project success but are a bit concerned that you don’t quite get the scope of your job, we’ll provide you with our view of some key attributes of a successful project sponsor. 

First and foremost, you are the head cheerleader for your project.  You can’t delegate this, and you can’t avoid it. You have to be publicly enthusiastic about what your team is accomplishing, you have to have at least a rudimentary understanding of the project’s basic components, and you must be vocal in communicating  the project’s importance to your organization –  why you’re doing it and how it will help you in the future.  It’s important to repeat yourself often. Your job is to ensure all the key stakeholders know that you and your team are invested in the success of your project and that you BELIEVE in its importance.  This is not about the team communication plan; it is about how you personally communicate the project work in executive interactions and informal communications, which are vital to maintaining organizational support and assets.  Being a vocal head cheerleader means that your project team members know that you support them in the executive offices; this will motivate team members when they know they are working on relevant and exciting projects, ones that have the attention of senior management. 

Stay on target. We see frequently project teams begin to veer off schedule because they encounter an unplanned issue, and they STOP and get bottled up debating about what the correct answer is. Meanwhile, the project is standing still, time and attention are diverted, the schedule starts slipping, and the costs creep upward.  All project teams have issues and encounter risks and problems – the trick is how to resolve these issues.  Good project sponsors help their teams propose solutions, quickly pick the best one based on available (and often imperfect) information, and move on.  They assign authority levels (more about this later) for the more routine decisions. Most often, these decisions are not critical. (Does it really matter which bug tracking software you select? More important is that you pick one and actually use it!) If you make a decision that turns out to be bad, there’s a good chance you can un-do it later on. Good project sponsors help their teams stay focused and maintain momentum. If you get stuck on one group of work packages, find another one to start early. Successful teams work through problems efficiently, and project sponsors have to help. 

Know where you are. I always know a project is in trouble when I ask the project manager how the project is progressing, and he says, “Great!” with no elaboration. Never accept this proclamation at face value.  Any project team worth its salt will have cost, schedule, risk, and other performance metrics to demonstrate its performance, and you should ask that this information to be supplied to you periodically and succinctly.  Require your project team to report this data in a manner you can digest quickly, is coherent, and is traceable to earlier reports.  Don’t skip this.

Spies are good. I’m sorry to tell you this, but sometimes your project team members will not be entirely truthful with you about how a project is performing.  You need informal sources of information. We have seen projects that were reported through executive dashboarding systems as “GREEN” all the way through project development up until a couple of weeks before implementation, when they unaccountably dropped to “RED.”  It never actually happens this way; the project was misclassified as “Green” for a long time before that.  If you’d had a spy, you would have known.

Talk to one of the developers in the bathroom, the lunch line, the elevator; ask her about her work, and watch how she responds.  Not what she says but how she says it. Is she uncomfortable talking with you, or is she excited to be telling you about the team’s accomplishments?   Finding informal information sources about project work can independently verify what the team is telling you.  This is particularly important if you have a new team lead, the project is high risk, or has high visibility or consequences. 

Assign authority. Another place project teams get bogged down is deciding who has the authority to decide what.  Many project teams don’t work this out at all, so every decision gets bogged down by who can decide it. Who can change the scope of the project? Fire the contractor? Change the budget? Good project sponsors work out incremental authority levels at the beginning of each project and delegate some authority to project team members.  If you as a project sponsor are the only one with authority to make any changes to your project, your project will likely be more expensive and take longer than if you had let your team make some of its own decisions.  Besides, it is likely that your project team members have more knowledge about the issue than you do and thus will make a better decision. 

Of course there are more than five attributes to being a successful project sponsor, so don’t look at this list as comprehensive. We’ll publish more in later articles.