Project Management in Practice

Beyond the alphabet soup of PRINCE2, MSP, PMBOK, ITIL, Agile

Working with Project Sponsors


I went to the Wellington PRINCE2 User Group meeting this week. The topic of the meeting was working with project sponsors. The user group has a format where it invites three speakers, each speaking for seven minutes and no PowerPoint is allowed. At the end of the talks, there is the opportunity for Q&A, group discussions and networking. The three speakers were all of exceptional quality – Philippa Jones, Don Robertson and Dr Judith Johnston.

It was an interesting discussion led by three very experienced project sponsors, some of who also had experience in project management. The key point that came out consistently during the night is that the Sponsor and Project Manager need to work in partnership to achieve successful outcomes. In a PRINCE2 project, the sponsor is someone from within the business and is called Executive. Project sponsors are usually individuals with significant responsibilities and consequently limited availability. Yet, they are ultimately responsible for the project and therefore need to be consulted with effectively to ensure the project is likely to achieve the outcomes sought.

This requires effective planning and delegation of authority. The Project Manager is responsible for managing day to day activities of the project. The sponsor is not there to help on day to day matters. The sponsor is there to advise on direction of the project, help with organizational knowledge. One effective use of your sponsor can be to handle resource commitments from teams where the Project Manager is not a line manager. However, that should not delve into the management of individuals in the team. Levels of authority and tolerance should be set out in the Project Charter (PID in PRINCE2).

Preparation is key in establishing working relationships with project sponsors. Providing the status report just before the meeting does not augur for a productive Project Board meeting. At the beginning of the project the Sponsor and Project Manager need to establish the outline of the reporting structure. Reporting is likely to be different based on what the project is trying to achieve and what are considered the Key Performance Indicators. Ground rules need to be set out regarding communication procedures – when the reports should be sent, in what format, how risks and issues should be reported and escalation methods.

Trust is the basis for this working relationship. Communication needs to be open and transparent between the Sponsor and Project Manager. If there are issues in the project, do not hide from the sponsor – report Red as Red. If the issues are with Senior User or Senior Supplier groups then approach the Sponsor directly to appraise them of the situation. Bringing something to light too late in the piece will take away the Sponsor’s ability to influence outcomes. Uncertainty is usually what causes status reports to be rosier than what they should be. The Project Manager must agree with the Sponsor how uncertainty should be reported. Uncertainty, especially in the early stages of the project, is quite common.

The Sponsor’s exposure of the project is usually not on a continuous basis – usually monthly in large programmes. If everything goes according to plan, then this may be sufficient. However, it is a good practice to have an informal meeting with your sponsor in between status meetings. This ensures your sponsor is kept abreast of developments. Any issues from the project should not get through to the sponsor from other channels than the Project Manager. This will only serve to undermine the trust between the two. The Project Manager must also ensure what is submitted in written status reports correlate to what is being communicated informally in between the formal reports.

Involving the Sponsor is usually associated with something going wrong in the project. This does not have to be the only reason to involve your Sponsor with the project team. One of the speakers related how she looked forward to celebration of achievements in her projects and the ability to say well done. Although it was not necessarily the key message of the evening, it is one that stuck with me.

Project Manager runs the project on behalf of the Sponsor. The role of the Project Manager is to manage the project within the tolerances afforded to him. The role of the Sponsor is to enable that environment to flourish, so the desired outcome is achieved.

Image Credit: GlenKnight.Com

9 responses to “Working with Project Sponsors

  1. vickipps March 14, 2012 at 11:21 am

    Excellent post! Thank you. I have several that fit well here on my site at http://www.project-pro.us, but perhaps the most consistent is A Case for Communicating Project Challenges (http://bit.ly/x80unz) – I like your line of “If there issues in the project, do not hide from the sponsor – report Red as Red” and will link this blog to mine as well.

    I hope your readers will also check out http://www.strategies4sponsors.com and complete our survey, or even better submit an Sponsor Story.

    Thanks!

  2. Pingback: A Case for Communicating Project Challenges « Professional Project Services

  3. Shoaib Ahmed March 14, 2012 at 11:40 am

    Appreciate your comment Vicki.

  4. Terry Teoh March 15, 2012 at 7:59 am

    Great write-up and summary!

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