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Nancy Dill

A Sponsor is the manager responsible for launching an initiative. He may or may not be the original requestor but he is responsible for making it happen.

When I train employees in Project Management, we often discuss the spectrum of quality in Sponsors. There are the Sponsors who are naturals – they seem to know what a team needs intuitively and are proactive about offering appropriate types of support. At the other end of the spectrum are managers who, for a variety of reasons, will never be good Project Sponsors. Most managers fall in the middle – willing, but unsure how to best support their initiatives. If you are in this group – this article is for you.

New initiatives or projects are effective when both the Project Manager and the Sponsor understand their roles and perform them. The Project Manager may either be someone with the formal title (of Project Manager) or a line employee who has been asked to take on a special project. In either case, the Project Manager is responsible for managing the project in such a way as to achieve the Sponsor’s vision. The vision may include such dimensions as: completed project, measurable results, completing milestones within specified timelines, and staying within budget.

The responsibilities of the Sponsor:

to provide project clarity
to lend power when appropriate
to oversee progress
to provide positive (and where appropriate, negative) reinforcement to the team

cannot be delegated. This means that no matter how good your project manager is – he cannot deliver the results desired without your active support.

Let’s look at each of the 4 tasks in detail:

1. Project Clarity
Most initiatives are very vague at the onset. I joke that I am called in when leaders have a “grey, fuzzy need”. As a veteran Project Manager, I know how to work with my Sponsors to help them clarify their goals, assumptions, success measures, etc. Many Project Managers are not so proactive. Possible reasons include:

they want to look good and are afraid of looking as if they don’t ‘get it’
they don’t want to tie up your time (more common than you might expect)
they are confused about which decisions are appropriately yours and are assuming that this project is ‘their baby’
they are too junior to understand the pitfalls of moving forward without early clarity.

In the ideal world, it is the Project Manager’s responsibility to extract the key information from you. In reality, for the human reasons listed above, Project Managers may not do so. In these cases, Outstanding Sponsors take it upon themselves to drive early communications and clarity.

Outstanding Sponsors often require use of a brief Project Charter which clarifies: critical dates, team lead and members, problem initiative will resolve, scope, deliverables, benefits, measures of success, areas of impact, resource requirements, assumptions and constraints. More complex projects may require a full Memorandum of Understanding which goes into significantly more depth than a simple Charter. Both charters and MOUs ensure that you and your Project Manager have a shared vision at the onset and provide a starting point for future discussions about changes in scope or objectives.

Although documentation is useful, the real achievement is insurance that you and your Project Manager will have thought through the key issues together. Often managers find that being asked to communicate their assumptions or define success measures brings them to a point of clarity about their requirements much earlier than they would have otherwise achieved it. Early clarity enables Project Managers to move much more quickly and accurately towards their deliverables.

In addition to the collaboration on formal documents, there may be informal information you want to share without putting it into writing. Examples of this include:

previous history including similar failed or abandoned initiatives
political context including anticipated supporters and resisters
additional project drivers beyond those formally documented (e.g. pet peeve of a Senior Leader)
expected challenges
key players to leverage

2. Lending Power When Appropriate
A Project Manager has little real power. Project Managers borrow their power from their Sponsors. As a Sponsor you provide the power to:

allocate or change resources
resolve barriers to the team’s success
accelerate, delay or shut down a project
champion change at higher levels of the organization
to drive interdepartmental changes
to change deliverables and timelines
to change team members’ priorities

Understanding the nature of your power enables you to offer yourself as a resource to your Project Manager when they recognize the following issues:

barriers to team success
need for high level buy-in and support
need to modify deliverables, resources, timeline and/or budget
need to drive a high level of engagement from the team
need for cross organizational support in the face of opposition

The sooner they recognize these 5 issues and include you, the faster the project will progress. Since the Project Manager cannot resolve these issues at his level of influence, delays in bringing these needs to your attention are likely to delay the initiative. Thus, discussing these 5 areas of leverage at the onset of the project can build an alliance between you and your Project Manager that will enable you to resolve these issues quickly when they emerge.

3. Oversee Team Progress
One of the most common mistakes Sponsors make is to de-prioritize meetings with their Project Managers. Meetings are often cancelled as urgent issues arise. There is a sense that “Joe has it under control so this isn’t a valuable use of my time”. Unfortunately, managers who do this often miss early warning signs of projects getting bogged down or going off track. It is an organizational necessity that meetings need to be prioritized and sometimes rearranged. One compromise is to hold an abbreviated meeting which focuses on 3 questions:

Are there any areas of concern?
What do you and the team need form me?
What team achievements do you want me to be aware of?

The order is important, because if time runs out, you will have handled the most time critical, action oriented areas.

When you hold your regular update meetings – ask your Project Managers to prepare a status report and email it to you 1-2 days before the meeting. The status report should include:

Progress since last meeting (including indication if project schedule is on or off track)
Current challenges
Anticipated upcoming challenges
What they need from you
Any outstanding team or individual contributions (to be reinforced)

Receiving this data before the meeting will enable you to hold more productive meetings since you will have had time to grasp the basics and can move on to clarifying questions and collaborating on solutions. Reviewing this information, at least every 2 weeks, provides you with the critical information you need to stay on top of team progress. In case a meeting has to be cancelled, this written progress report will provide you with a summarized perspective on progress and issues.

Outstanding Sponsors also stay alert to indications (from the team or the organization) when the goal, approach or the timeline needs to change. Since projects, by their nature, take companies into new territory – information received throughout the process may indicate a change of plans is required. Outstanding Sponsors monitor project progress with an eye to whether macro level changes are appropriate.

4. Motivate
Invisible projects (projects where management seems disinterested or disengaged) are considered “wastes of time” by most employees. When employees see their assigned project this way they often miss both meetings and deliverables. The cumulative effect of multiple employees missing their deliverables ranges from simple project delay to full project derailment.

In contrast, highly visible projects can be critical to one’s career success. Projects offer opportunities for management to see their employees’ capabilities in new ways – this seeing is beneficial for both the employees and for management. Treating all teams you sponsor as if they are visible and significant has a direct impact on employee commitment; when team members feel seen and appreciated they give significantly more to the initiative.

Clearly, waiting to appreciate team members until project completion will not drive individual contribution. Thus, letting team members know that you are aware and appreciative of their contributions periodically throughout the project is the best way to drive commitment.

Sponsors impact project success by what they say, do and reinforce. They also impact success by what they don’t say, don’t do and don’t reinforce.

Outstanding Sponsors stay attuned to what they can do to enhance the success of their initiatives. It isn’t about heavy lifting; it is about understanding the highest leverage points they can use to achieve success.

In conclusion, these actions enable outstanding project Sponsors to achieve their status and their results:

They understand the critical responsibilities of Project Sponsors and that these responsibilities cannot be delegated.
They work closely with their Project Managers at launch to ensure their requests are clear. They use tools such as Project Charters or Memorandums of Understanding to ensure project clarity.
They understand the power balance between the Project Manager and the types of power that may be needed for initiative success. They are proactive in letting the Project Manager know to call them in if these types of assistance are needed.
They monitor team progress and prioritize meetings with Project Managers. If abbreviated meetings are necessary – they focus the time they have on learning what the Project Manager needs from them.
They monitor with an eye to whether significant changes in goals, approach or timeline are appropriate.
They ensure their teams feel seen and appreciated for their work throughout the project, thus creating a working environment which fosters team excellence.

If you are already doing all six of these regularly, congratulations! You are an Outstanding Sponsor.

In all probability, you are not doing all 6 but you are already doing some of these things. The question you face, therefore, is one of refinement: what do you want to do more of, less of or do differently? Whichever you choose, adding them to your approach will increase your (and your teams’) levels of success and impact.

©2005-2007 Nancy Dill Consulting

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