A Project Management Article by Peter Taylor
How to control your greatest asset and potentially your biggest threat
Critical to any projects success is having a good project sponsor, but, like the saying goes ‘you can pick your friends but you can’t pick your relatives’ and the same is true of project sponsors.
The Project Sponsor is the key stakeholder representative for the project and provides the necessary support for the Project Manager with the primary responsibility of achievement of the project objectives and benefits. An inappropriate choice of Project Sponsor can seriously impact the possibility of success of the project and provide you, the project manager, with an unwanted additional overhead.
Now you can’t practically ask a sponsor for their resume and put them through a formal interview process, nice as it would be sometimes to utter the phrase ‘I’m sorry but I just don’t think that this is the job for you right now’. But you should evaluate the sponsor you have and complete, in a subtle way of course, a ‘Strengths and Weaknesses ‘assessment so that you can adapt your project approach and communication methods to maximise their sponsorship support for the project that you now manage.
You can also openly discuss your intended plans for project management and communication to ensure that they fully buy-in to what you intend and how you intend to achieve it.
Ask them what they expect
It is important to get the project off to a good start and build a strong relationship with the project sponsor. Don’t take any secondhand statements, references, quotes or rumours to be the truth of the project sponsors views and expectations. Ask them. Clarify directly and take only their word for what it is they want and expect.
I joked that you couldn’t practically ask a sponsor for their credentials for this job and put them through a formal interview process. Indeed, more often than not the project sponsor has been chosen by the business well before you have even been selected as the project manager. But let’s just assume that you can interview them, this could be fun.
‘Tell me why you think you are the right person for this job?’ – Well, what skills are you looking for in a good project sponsor?
‘What strengths will you bring to the role?’ – What are the strengths that would make your life as a project manager that much easier?
‘What are your points of weakness and what actions will you take to address these issues?’ – What weaknesses are you looking to avoid at all costs?
Manage the first meeting
In preparing for that first meeting with your sponsor you will need to understand that some sponsors will have a very fixed vision for the project and will tell you, and the rest of the project team, exactly what they want, when they want it, and what will happen if they don’t get what they want. Be cautious with these sponsors, their strength of purpose and character may challenge your interviewing skills. But it is still essential that you end up with the clarity of purpose that you need to run this project and work closely with the project sponsor.
Other project sponsors may have a vision that appears to be an undefined conceptual possibility developed with a small dose of delusion and aided (allegedly) with hint of illegal substance abuse.
Ask the questions you need to ask
Consider the following key topics; business objective(s), anticipated impact of the project deliverables, expected quality standards, significant risks seen at this stage, key dates on the project horizon, key stakeholders (beyond yourself and the project sponsor), and any budgetary constraints that are likely. In addition you need to learn what style of communication and relationship this particular sponsor expects from you.
First impressions really count so do your preparation well. If you conduct a good, professional, confident, first meeting with your project sponsor you will not only demonstrate your capability in a good light, but you will also provide a valuable service to the sponsor.
Open discussion works
‘Tell me about the project we have’. Feel free to start the conversation in a simple way, with an open question, and then follow up with other questions that you need to ask in order to reach a suitable level of confidence in your understanding of those key topics; business objective(s), anticipated impact of the project deliverables, quality standards, significant risks seen at this stage, key dates on the project horizon, key stakeholders and budgetary constraints.
Apply the power grid
Now consider the power base that your project sponsor has. Use the power grid below to assess your project sponsor, assess their rating of interest in this project from high to low and their actual power in the organisation, also from high to low.
This will give you an indication of the way in which you should work with them.
Actually this power grid is for all project stakeholders and if you end up with a project sponsor that is in the ‘low interest’ and ‘low power’ quadrant you really have a problem. It is unlikely that this sponsor is ever going to support your management endeavours.
Discover what’s in it for them?
Now you need to understand what ‘is in it for them’ – what their previous experience as a sponsor has been (both in their knowledge of being a sponsor and of real project experience i.e. was a previous project a nightmare project?) if that is appropriate. Even if they have never ‘sponsored’ before they will, no doubt, have an opinion based upon stories they have heard from projects in the past.
And ‘what’s in it for you’ is the ability to work in that desired ‘Productive Lazy’ management style but still deliver for your sponsor.
Manage your sponsor well and they will be your ally in the coming weeks and months.
Note: this article reflects the viewpoint of the author, Peter Taylor, and does not necessarily represent the views of PMIWDC. If you disagree with or object to the views expressed here, please let us know