The project sponsor/project manager relationship is a critical one and a lack of effective project sponsorship is often identified as the cause of project (and project manager) failures.
The optimal balance is one in which the PM and sponsor have worked together on previous projects and have a supportive relationship based on trust and mutual respect. The project manager supports the sponsor by planning and managing the project while effectively communicating status and escalating issues or risks. The sponsor supports the project manager by removing roadblocks and by ensuring the project has the funding and resources required to succeed.
Unfortunately, on many projects, the sponsor may be new to the role or may not have worked with the PM before. In such cases, two common issues could occur:
- The sponsor micro-manages the PM or undermines the PM’s authority by providing direction to the team without involving the PM.
- The sponsor is disengaged from the project or provides insufficient support to the PM or the team.
While these behaviors could be on purpose, they may also be by accident and the sponsor may genuinely not be aware of the impacts they are causing.
What could a PM do to avoid either of these issues?
- Review the PM and sponsor role as well as expected rules of engagement with the sponsor and request that the sponsor support the PM’s presentation of this same information during the kickoff meeting.
- Meet frequently (at minimum weekly) with the sponsor to confirm the sponsor is “on the same page” as the PM is, and to ensure the sponsor owns the actions, risks and issues assigned to him or her.
- Sponsors are usually very busy executives, and the last thing they need is surprises. Even if it’s bad news, make sure the sponsor is aware of it in a timely fashion.
- Be organized – either directly or through assistance of a project coordinator, ensure that key project artifacts such as a schedule, financial forecast and action/issue/risk logs are kept current, and manage project meetings in a disciplined fashion.
- Go beyond the triple constraint – demonstrate an understanding of the expected business impacts of the project when managing changes, issues and risks.
- Don’t neglect to address the “What’s in it for me?” question for the sponsor – this is critical in cases where the sponsor appears disengaged.
Planning, professionalism and pro-activity can be the 3 P’s to bring predictability to the challenging dynamic between sponsors and PMs.