Acting as a Project Sponsor

As a senior manager, you will often find yourself in the position to sponsor a project. This either means that you are the beneficiary and the owner of the budget of the project, or that the holder of this budget has invested you to play this role.

Even if an executive manager, the Project Sponsor will get more involved in the project assigned, in order to protect the interests of the project. The level of involvement will depend on the phase the project is, but the involvement must be visible and continuous.

From the inception of the project, the Project Sponsor should be interested that the planning (time, features and budget) is feasible. Their primary interest is to ultimately benefit from the results of the project, which will never happen if the costs and/or timeline are too low compared to the features and quality required.

The Project Sponsor should have a small budget put aside for change requests. Don't assume all tasks will go according to plan. Also, don't add an extra 10% to each activity; have 10% form the entire project put aside as a bulk sum that can be allocate in different proportions where needed. It might come to the time that the project is blocked at 90% because all budget has been spent and this will be your safe cushion.

The Project Sponsor should also be interested in the team: the level of allocation required, the competencies and the feasibility of these allocations. Securing the right resources from the beneficiary is key in the success of the project, even if you have a powerful and experienced supplier.

The Project Sponsor should be concerned on the approach of the project. The most successful projects are built in small iterations, so that benefits can be gained early and there is flexibility for change should the business change also during the project lifetime.

The Project Sponsor should be concerned about progress reporting. They should ask, if not already given, for progress information and status meetings from the Project Manager.

The Project Sponsor should be concerned about escalation and establish clear rules when issues should be escalated to her. I have found that Project Sponsors regretted less if issues were escalated to them too early, and more if issues were escalated to them too late: with a phone call, they were able to solve a problem the PM was struggling with for two days. So as a Project Sponsor, keep an open door for the Project Manager or any Team Member and don't frown even if you feel they escalated to early: it might be because they knew you would be able to solve it in less then 1/10 the time they would take.

The Project Sponsor should take Organizational Change and coping with Organizational Change as their task, since it does not only requires skills that the PM might have but also authority that the PM probably does not have.

And finally, the Project Sponsor should be concerned with maintenance: what to do to maintain the solution, the change, the benefits. This is especially important for the Beneficiary organization, because the project was created in order to improve an aspect of how the business runs in the Beneficiary organization. In addition to the tangible deliverables of the project, the Project Sponsor must ensure that the employees use that deliverables and benefit from them. If change that comes as a result of the project is not maintained, the way the company’s journey will look like the graphic below, where each improvement initially brings visible progress, but after a while, the organization returns to its former level, which is the level of comfort of its employees:

Instead, we want to see progress as shown below, so it is important to endorse the level of change after the project:

If we were to use a Pareto analysis, we can appreciate that the effort required to maintain the change is only 20%, compared to 80% effort required to get the initial momentum. It is therefore very unfortunate that this effort is wasted in many organizations who rush to celebrate the success of the project and then forget about it and its results. Some simple ways to ensure that change is sustainable are listed below:

  • Make changes in small steps, and avoid too much change or change of different areas at the same time, because that would confuse employees; 
  • Even before the end of the project, give great attention to training and communication of project results towards those who will benefit from them; 
  • Change internal rules and procedures so as to include project results in them (for example, when launching a new information system, the job description of the operator must be updated to include the ability to operate correctly and to date in the information system); 
  • Change compensation and benefits packages in order to encourage the use of project results (e.g. at the launch of a new banking product, sales force objectives include a sales target for that product); 
  • Install a post-production support system for those who want to use the project results, but have difficulties - for example a sales person who has participated in defining the product will be available anytime for his colleagues for questions about the product; 
  • Regular audit (announced!) of the change that imposes coercive measures and sanctions for those who do not comply with the measures imposed. It is always advised to use positive motivation, but the truth is that without a set of consequences, employees will be tempted to return to their old way too easily, because this is their level of comfort.

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