The role of the sponsor is a critical success factor in many projects. Post implementation reviews usually have some reference to the sponsor or the activities that a sponsor (should have) performed. Here’s a list of some key sponsor roles and the implications of good and bad performance on a project:
1. VISION (why are we doing this?)
Setting the vision at the beginning of the project is essential to ensure that all the stakeholders and the delivery team understand why the project is being initiated and what it is aiming to achieve as an outcome. The sponsor should communicate the vision and then reiterate as often as possible in as many ways as possible. This will result in a delivery team who make good decisions about content, design and priorities. The team will also have purpose and motivation - there is nothing worse than not knowing why you are doing something and where it fits in the ambition of the company.
Example: I led a project where the vision was clear but complicated due to its breadth and scale. The sponsor used a number of methods to convey the vision, such as videos, presentations and a blog. The success of this was down to re-using the same picture in every communication - a simple visual to explain the target outcome that was then re-used in all project documentation and could be seen on meeting room walls. The vision became a brand and was lived by everyone. This also helped raise the profile of the project and it became the one that everyone wanted to work on.
2. CONTEXT (how does this fit in with everything else?)
The vision needs to be believed and seen to be achievable. The context for the project helps people understand where it fits in the overall business strategy and plans. Making connections between the project vision and other initiatives will avoid scepticism and elitism. Projects often compete for priority in terms of funding and resource but they also need to integrate in order to fully contribute to the bigger picture. External context is also important. The project will likely have some external influences, whether that be opportunities or threats, and these need to be clearly acknowledged.
Example: I remember a project that was superbly marketed internally by the sponsor and became the exciting project that everyone wanted to be involved in. Then another project was launched that was part of a wider Group initiative. There was no communication about the relative priority, the apparent conflicting outcomes, or confirmation of the continuing relevance to the strategy. There was a huge dip in motivation and performance while the team tried making connections through various (incorrect) assumptions. Eventually, the sponsor was asked to confront the concerns of the team and was able to rebuild morale through explaining how the projects would integrate to achieve a modified strategy. Time was lost and sponsor credibility dented.
3. BENEFITS (what are the outcomes we’re aiming for?)
The vision paints the big picture and is often a long-term description of success as part of a journey. You really know you’ve been successful on a project when you can demonstrate delivering clear, tangible, measurable benefits. These targets or objectives need to be identified early in the project initiation and owned by the sponsor. There may be other stakeholders who are the recipient of each benefit but they will be biased and try and influence priorities accordingly. It is the job of the sponsor to ensure that all benefits are understood, retain focus and it is clear on how they achieve the vision.
Example: A project was floundering in the early stages of design and scope management. The wish list was extensive and the various stakeholders making a case of each of their areas, such that nothing was being given up. The sponsor came to the next scope meeting and quickly drew a line through everything that couldn’t be directly contributing to one of the benefits. Stakeholders challenged with good arguments for new scope but they were referred to other projects where the benefits were more relevant. This exercise was repeated as required and was an excellent way of managing scope and retaining focus on the project outcomes.
4. PRIORITIES (what is most important?)
Priorities continually change within a project and within an overall portfolio. Sponsors must ensure that the team understand the changing priorities so that the right design and delivery decisions are always aligned to the changing business priorities.
Example: I was leading a complex project with many different benefit types. Early on, the sponsor was very clear on the relative priorities of the benefits and where most value would be delivered from the project. Understanding the trade-offs between, say financial and time, product and service, was really useful throughout the project and at all levels. Stakeholder management was also made easier as the sponsor had already made priority calls in advance of a scope issue being raised.
5. RECOGNITION (how does it feel?)
Projects are made up of methodology, process, tools and technology. They are also made of people and that makes them volatile. A sponsor needs to ensure that the project teams are always feeling valued, motivated and rewarded. If morale is low on a project then it can almost grind to a halt while peoples’ focus is elsewhere. Conversely, a highly motivated team can perform well beyond expectations. The sponsor has a significant influence on the project team, usually more than they realise.
Example. A sponsor was at an internal conference talking about the business plans for the year and the importance of the change initiatives. He made a throw-away line about the company's lack of change capability that very quickly found its way back to the project team who were working on his top priority project. There reaction was not exactly ‘tools down’ but the impact was felt. When the sponsor heard about it he recovered by visiting the team in person and offering to fund a phase-end event. He then regularly visited to hand out individual recognition awards for key performers (informed by the programme director). Morale quickly returned.