Ask not what your sponsor can do for you

tangoThere’s been tremendous focus in the last few years on the importance of project sponsorship. It is well understood that while a strong sponsor can help the team to navigate perilous political waters and be the committed champion required for project success, a weak one will have difficulty supporting all but the least complex initiatives.

While I’ve heard my fair share of complaints from project managers about the effectiveness of their sponsors, I’ve received almost as much feedback from sponsors about the challenges they are facing with their project managers.

So what can you do for your sponsor?

Follow the Goldilocks principle for sponsor engagement

Involve your sponsor too little, and they are either going to get disengaged if they are not fully committed to the project’s success or they will become concerned and may start micromanaging by inserting themselves into routine activities which don’t require their involvement. No project manager is an island – know the right time to pull them in to help your resolve situations which can’t be fixed by you & your team alone. But consume too much of your sponsor’s time and they are likely to let you know pretty quickly that they are not your babysitter.

Know your role

Higher maturity organizations invest in sponsor onboarding but you can help to reinforce that learning by ensuring your sponsor is fully aware of their responsibilities. While this might be defined in your organization’s policies or methodology, if not, taking the time to develop & document rules of engagement with your sponsor early in the life of the project will ensure that you don’t overstep your decision-making boundaries, and if you get into a situation where the sponsor is overstepping theirs, you’ll have something to refer them back to.

Show me the money!

Avoid technobabble and frame your communications, decisions and escalations in business terms. The right way to generate the true sense of urgency required to drive sponsor engagement is by focusing on the impacts to the project’s expected benefits realization.

Be predictable

A good sponsor is like an iceberg – the efforts they are taking to drive successful outcomes may not always be visible. And remember, they have other accountabilities beyond your project. The last thing you want to do is to make them waste their time by having to regularly follow up with you because you have missed a commitment or have not been responsive.

Sponsors are critical to project success but never forget that it takes two to tango!




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Execution without vision is like pre-school soccer!

toddler-soccerThe quote attributed to Thomas Edison of “Vision without execution being hallucination” is one side of the coin. As Roger Martin wrote in a recent HBR article, execution without vision is mindless.

A good analogy I’ve used to express how tightly integrated the two need to be comes from organized sports.

Head coaches usually have the vision of taking their team to the playoffs or even winning the overall championship. The first failure occurs if that vision can’t be translated into strategies adopted by the management & coaching team including how they will get the right players, how those players will be forged into a cohesive, efficient team and which plays are likely to stymy their opponents. A subsequent failure may happen when they try to execute those initiatives. In either case, the head coach may end up looking for a new gig come the end of the season.

Pre-school soccer presents the opposite problem.

Small children have unlimited energy and lots of enthusiasm, and when they are able to make contact with the ball they can usually deliver a solid kick. Unfortunately, they possess limited attention spans, get easily distracted and require frequent gratification. Their rudimentary execution skills are good, but they are just as likely to kick the ball into their own net as they are to score on their opposition.

While most executives I know would not like the comparison to pre-schoolers, in the absence of an overall vision for a company or division, and without that vision being distilled into strategy, the compass guiding the decisions for those executives usually points to either their own ambitions or their assumptions on what is best for the organization.

Pet projects flourish within such environments.

Here are some of the warning signs which indicate your organization may be suffering from mindless execution.

  • Projects increase the level of risk to the organization without delivering commensurate value
  • Multiple projects whose goals conflict with one another
  • Decision making on transformational projects made by a single executive with little or no collaboration with other leaders
  • Significant shifts in scope driven from within, not without
  • Team members completing project work without understanding the expected benefits or desired outcomes for the project
  • Projects are never cancelled
  • The Abilene Paradox best defines your organization’s culture

My favorite expression from the Daleks of the popular television show Doctor Who, is what they’d say when their eye stalk was damaged: “My vision is impaired, I cannot see!“. This was usually followed by the Dalek in question being destroyed. If your company’s vision is impaired it might be your company that is Exterminate-d!






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Project management practices I applied to my vacation

imageI’ve been off over the past week enjoying some much needed down time at a tropical resort. Although I was not working, I still had the opportunity to apply a few project management practices.

An ounce of risk management is worth a pound of firefighting

A number of the countries in the tropics are suffering from some pretty nasty mosquito-borne diseases including malaria and dengue fever. Researching the current travel advisories for my destination helped me reduce the likelihood of getting infected as I picked up some strong insect repellent spray which kept most if not all of the bugs away. I had contingency reserves (a.k.a. Tylenol and medical insurance), but why use a risk mitigation or transferral response when avoidance is more effective and less painful?

Learn lessons from others’ experiences

While I’ve contributed my fair share of reviews to TripAdvisor, I’ve benefited immensely from the knowledge of others on this and other travel sites. Although I went back to the same resort I had visited last year, there had been a few changes made for which I was able to get unbiased updates including the reinforcement of the importance of bringing bug spray! Most of the project lessons repositories I’ve encountered are not as easy to use as TripAdvisor, but when venturing into the unknown it is always a good idea to learn from those who have preceded you.

Use multiple methods of estimation

Budgeting for a vacation is never an exact science, and with ATM withdrawal transaction fees in foreign locations being as high as they are, I usually try to take sufficient cash to cover most incidental expenses. The question is how much should be taken? Using analogous esimation my own past actuals or those from fellow travellers, parametric estimation based on costs per day, and bottom-up estimation based on what I intended to do or spend helped come up with a fairly accurate estimate. No matter how much you trust your estimates, getting the same value with more than one method of estimation provides a higher degree of confidence.

Start with Why

The resort I stayed at has a reward points program – the more activities you participate in, the more points you earn which can be exchanged at the end of your stay for craft, food or other items. I had my mind set on getting a particular item which required a large number of points. While my son and I could likely have still got the item based on our own participation, by sharing the desired outcome with fellow tourists at the resort, they cheered us on and in some cases, gave us their reward points to help us procure the item a lot sooner.

That I was able to apply such practices to my trip should not be a surprise – after all, a vacation meets the standard criteria for identifying a project: a unique, temporary (way too short!) endeavor which consumes resources (too many!) and creates value (rest, relaxation & good memories).

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