Project Sponsorship: Traps and Rookie Mistakes

by Joanne Vatz, PMP | Bio | Contact

During my consulting work performing program assessments, I’ve met a lot of project sponsors who are terrific role models and exemplify the talents necessary to coax the best performance out of project teams and achieve results.   The best ones are usually quite experienced, having performed their sponsorship role multiple times in the past.  They know what works, how to spot trouble, and what requires their attention. 

For those of us not in this rarified category, you should know that being an effective project sponsor is, and can be, a learned skill. 

Novice project sponsors can easily succumb to all kinds of traps in the minefield of managing IT projects.  Here are just six that we observe that are pretty ubiquitous. These are not the only six, but more on that later. Consider:

1.    Are You a Poor Choice? – are you the best person for the job? Do you have the time? How comfortable are you with the scale of the project? Have you sponsored a project of this size and complexity before?  If not, how much bigger is this job than your largest successful accomplishment? If you have only successfully sponsored a $3MM hardware upgrade to the data center, it’s a safe bet you are not experienced enough to sponsor a $50MM ERP system implementation.   
2.    Have You Set Unreasonable Expectations? – a recent sponsor/client decided to “set the bar high” and establish an ERP implementation deadline that was 25% faster than that recommended by the vendor. This, despite the fact that the sponsor’s business organization was pretty average and had never completed an IT project of this magnitude.  Yes, I know that part about setting stretch expectations, but let’s not take this to extremes.  It just results in demoralizing the team from the get go and setting everyone up for failure.  So the lesson here is its ok to be aggressive, but also be realistic about what you have to work with in terms of talent and experience. 
3.    Are You Ignoring Occam’s Razor? – Occam said “Plurality must never be posited without necessity”. For project sponsors, the lesson is that the smaller, incremental and simple solutions are usually the best path forward.  Experienced project sponsors demand project teams simplify efforts to increase the chances of project success. Remember that complexity is to be avoided, it substantially increases the risk of project failures, in government projects the most complex fail more than 75% of the time.  Aristotle, Confucius and other classical philosophers propounded the principle of the golden mean which counsels against extremism in general.  And don’t let the project team buffalo you into thinking they cannot simplify a solution, they can, but it take a lot of work to think it through.
4.    Do You Tolerate Waste? – No! you say, that’s not me!, but know that novice sponsors lack sufficient awareness or sensitivity to the waste that often occurs on IT projects. The average % of waste in IT is 33%. This is really intolerable.  Experienced sponsors hold tight to the purse strings, they demand accountability, question expenditures, measure outcomes, and consistently review cost and schedule performance.  
5.    “Perfect is the Enemy of Good” - Commonly attributed to Voltaire, if you have loads of time and money, by all means hold out for perfect solutions.  But rarely is this the case and usually if you can get most of what you want, take it!  The Pareto principle or 80–20 rule explains this numerically.  It commonly takes 20% of time to complete 80% of a task while to complete the last 20% of a task takes 80% of the effort.  The increased effort required to achieve a 100% solution results in diminishing returns, as further activity becomes increasingly inefficient. 
6.    Do You Know When Done is Really Done?  - Good sponsors demand metrics and data to estimate project progress and drive decision making. They question the details. Don’t permit anecdotal status reporting. And keep your eye on the 90% done tasks; because they are not, these tasks are notorious for taking more than 10% more to complete.  A lot more.