Project Sponsorship

There are multiple aspects that contribute to a successful project, for example the right people, proper planning, governance, clear roles and responsibilities, but to mention a few. You could argue all equally important but one of the most important aspects that are often overlooked is the position of the Project Sponsor.

In my experience, the Sponsor holds one of the most important roles in terms of project success or failure. An involved sponsor who really is vested in the success of the project, will bring drive and energy to the project at a senior executive level – especially needed when the going gets tough.

The Project Sponsor takes ownership for the project goals, provides overall direction for the project and is the owner of the final product/deliverable.

Project Sponsor – Definition

In PRINCE2 it is not a defined role. PRINCE2 separately defines the “Project Executive” and the “Senior User” – two of the three core elements of the Project Board. For simpler projects these roles may well be combined and this then aligns closely with the general usage of the term Project Sponsor.

The APM Body of Knowledge characterises the Project Sponsor as the individual for whom the project is undertaken and who is the primary risk taker. The Sponsor is a member of the Steering Group which provides strategic direction and will include senior managers and, sometimes, key stakeholders.

The PMI PMBOK Guide talks about project sponsors and project initiators: the project initiator authorises the initiation of a project and the project sponsor provides the financial resources, in cash or in kind for the project. Again, these roles may often be assumed by a single individual.

Who can be a Project Sponsor

It is unusual for Project Sponsors to be full time project professionals. It is more likely that they are drawn from the management team of the business – perhaps as an interested “user”. For major projects it may be the CEO or CIO which assumes the role of Sponsor. It is preferable that the individual brings relevant experience and wields the authority and organisational ability to make things happen.

A sponsor needs to be:

  • a business leader and decision-maker with the credibility to work across corporate and functional boundaries;
  • an enthusiastic advocate of the work and the change it brings about;
  • prepared to commit time and support to the role;
  • sufficiently experienced in P3 to judge if the work is being managed effectively and to challenge P3 managers where appropriate.

Project Sponsor vs Other Project Roles

Project Sponsor vs. Project Owner

The project sponsor is a person.  The project owner is the organization that performs the project and receives its deliverables.  Normally the project sponsor is employed by the project owner organisation.

Project Sponsor vs. Project Manager

The project sponsor is one (and only one) level above the project manager.  While the project manager is responsible for the day to day operations of the project, the project sponsor seeks to promote the project to keep it high on the priority list, ensures the resources are in place to perform the project, and approves changes to the project.

Project Sponsor Project Manager
Day to Day management of project work No Yes
Project Deliverables Accepts Produces
Funding Approves Requests

The two main differences between project sponsorship and project management 

    1. Project sponsorship includes the identification and definition of the project whereas project management is concerned with delivering a project that is already defined, if only quite loosely.
    2. The project sponsor is responsible for the project’s business case and should not hesitate to recommend cancellation of the project if the business case no longer justifies the project.

Quick look at Other Project Roles:

    • Project Manager:  Responsible for the day to day project work, keeping the project on schedule and budget.  They report to the Project Sponsor.
    • Project Team:  The people who perform the technical project work and produce the deliverables.  They report to the project manager.
    • Customers/Users:  The people who use the project deliverables to improve their lives or work.  They are sometimes involved directly within the project in the form of focus groups or test subjects.
    • Vendors:  The people and organizations the project procures to provide products and/or services to fill technical gaps in the project team’s knowledge or ability, or to enhance the quality of the final product.
    • Business Partners:  The people or organizations that the project owner partners with to fulfill a specific role like installation, training or support.
    • Functional Managers:  The managers of technical groups (departments) within the owner organization, who often supply technical expertise to the project.
    • External Stakeholders:  Most project have stakeholders who are affected by the project, like government regulatory agencies, adjacent landowners, and the like.

Sponsor Responsibilities

The role of project sponsor is critical to ensuring the success of projects – therefore, when initiating a new project, you need to define the project sponsor taking into account the importance of project sponsorship. A project sponsor is to be involved from project initiation to project end. They represent the business side of the project.  They were probably involved when the project was being conceived and advocated for its inception before a project manager was assigned.

Further the sponsor is critical to strategic planning, high project sustainability, and successful implementation of project objectives. The role of project sponsor covers the financial and organizational responsibilities and activities that are directed to quick and decisive governance of the project.

The project sponsor is one, and only one, level above the project manager.  They do not manage the day to day operations of the project but they ensure the resources are in place, promote the project, and hold overall responsibility for the project’s success.

A good sponsor performs different functions during the project life cycle, serving as mentor, catalyst, motivator, barrier buster, and boundary manager. Most of the sponsor responsibilities are covered below:

  • The sponsor is the link between the project manager and senior managers, lead negotiations to gain and ensure stakeholder consensus.
  • Champion/Promotion: The project sponsor is the best ‘project seller’ that champions the project thought the business. The sponsor promotes and defends the project in front of all other stakeholders. They are the project champion that attempts to keep the project at the highest priority within the organisation.
  • Informing:  They receive project status updates from the project manager and disseminate the information to the relevant executives.
  • Project Charter:  This document officially creates the project and assigns the project manager.  It falls directly within the project sponsor’s responsibility.
  • Authorisation: They authorise the project and assign the project manager. They approve the project management plan and are kept aware of how the project is managed.
  • Scoping:  They are generally responsible for determining the initial project scope, although the project manager is ultimately responsible for the official project scope within the project management plan.
  • Goals: The Sponsor should ensure that the business need is valid and correctly prioritised within the project.
  • Communication: Clearly communicate on aspects of the project with stakeholder groups and senior management.
  • Keeping to Schedule: The Sponsor is heavily involved in ensuring that the project is kept to the original schedule along with the Project Manager. In order to manage the schedule the Sponsor and Project Manager should meet frequently and review the timeline.
  • Changes: A project can experience changes at any time. The Sponsor needs to ensure that these changes are properly managed to ensure that they don’t have any negative impact on the project.
  • Resolve Risks & Issues: Some issues are out of the reach of the Project Manager such as decisions on changes and conflicting objectives. The Sponsor takes control of these issues and ensures that they are solved efficiently and effectively.
  • Support: The Project Manager needs consistent support during a project. The Sponsor is on hand to provide this support in the form of mentoring, coaching and leadership. The Sponsor also supports the Project Team especially in terms of scope clarification, progress management and guidance.
  • Reporting: Assistance for the PM with appraisal and reporting.
  • Funding: They are responsible for negotiations to ensure funding is in place and approving changes to the project budget.
  • Leadership: Provide direction and guidance for project empowerment, key business strategies and project initiatives.
  • ROI & Benefits: As owner of the business case, the project sponsor is responsible for qualifying and overseeing the delivery of the benefits (the benefits realisation) as well as to identify project critical success factors and approve deliverables.
  • Identify members of Steering Committee and chair these Steerco meetings.
  • Involve stakeholders in the project and maintain their ongoing commitment to the project through using communication strategies and project management planning methods
  • Receiving:  Evaluate the project’s success on completion – The project sponsor receives the project deliverables from the project manager, approves them, and integrates them into the owner organization.

According to the Project Management Institute (PMI), the project sponsor role can be broken into three parts: vision, governance and value or benefits realization. They break those down in the following way:

Vision

    • Makes sure the business case is valid and in step with the business propositio
    • Aligns project with business strategy, goals and objective
    • Stays informed of project events to keep project viable
    • Defines the criteria for project success and how it fits with the overall business

Governance

    • Ensures project is properly launched and initiated
    • Maintains organizational priorities throughout project
    • Offers support for project organization
    • Defines project roles and reporting structure
    • Acts as an escalation point for issues when something is beyond the project manager’s control
    • Gets financial resources
    • Decision-maker for progress and phases of project

Values & Benefits

    • Makes sure that risks and changes are managed
    • Helps to ensure control and review processes
    • Oversees delivery of project value
    • Evaluates status and progress
    • Approves deliverables
    • Helps with decision-making
    • Responsible for project quality throughout project phases

Common reasons why the Sponsor lets down the project:

Many organisations invest heavily in project management training but are blind to the benefits of having project leaders who truly understand how projects differ from other management activities. Business are letting a project down if the sponsor:

    • is reassignment in the organisation, or distraction by other priorities.
    • is micro managing which can disrupt project manager confidence and authority.
    • fails to understand the project process and responsibilities.

The chances are that if an inappropriate project sponsor has been chosen,

    • the effectiveness of the role is reduced,
    • the project is not funded sufficiently,
    • and the overall success of the project is likely to turn into failure.

In fact, any project which is initiated without an appropriate degree of executive sponsorship (executive sponsor) stands an high likelihood of failure.

Sponsorship: project, programme or portfolio

Project

The role of the project sponsor starts before the appointment of the project manager. It continues beyond project closure and the departure of the project manager. So the sponsorship role covers the whole project life cycle.

The project sponsorship role will often be taken by the programme manager where the project is part of a programme.

Programme

The scale of programmes will often require a sponsor to be supported by a group of senior managers who perform some sponsorship duties. However, ultimate accountability will lie with the programme sponsor.

The programme manager should also be a competent project sponsor and will often perform that role for some, or all, of the programme’s component projects.

Portfolio

Sponsorship of a portfolio of projects and programmes will be undertaken by a senior executive with the necessary status, credibility and authority. This may well be a main board member, or even the CEO of the organisation. The scale of a portfolio will require an extensive governance organisation. This may involve, for example, committees with the responsibility for investment decisions or management of change.

What a Project Sponsor Does In Each Phase

While sometimes a project sponsor is clearly engaged from the start and other times they are nowhere to be seen, the best project sponsor is fully engaged with every phase of the project.

Initiation Duties

Project sponsors are instrumental in selecting the project manager during the initiation phase, and then they give that project manager a clear mandate, context for the project and set the level of their authority.

Also, during the project initiation, the project sponsor makes sure the project is appropriate for the organization, offering input on the project charter and participates in the kick-off meeting. The sponsor helps with the decision making during this phase.

Planning Duties

For the planning phase, the project sponsor is checking to make sure the project plan is realistic and feasible. This accounts for time restrictions and whether or not the team is tasked with expectations they cannot meet.

The project sponsor can help resolve issues, too, if they’re beyond the scope of the project manager. If there are other projects in play, the project sponsor is making sure they’re all working together and not against each other.

Implementation Duties

For the implementation and control phases, the project sponsor should work with the project manager, but not overstep boundaries. The project sponsor evaluates the project’s actual progress against what was planned and provides feedback to the project manager as necessary.

Sponsors also help the project manager and team work more autonomously to solve issues as they arise, while making sure that processes are being followed. They identify underlying factors that might cause problems and celebrate completion of milestones.

Closing Duties

During the closing phase, the project sponsor is part of the post-mortem evaluation on performance and other aspects of the project. They make sure that handoffs and signoffs are done properly. Project sponsors help facilitate the discussion that decides whether a project was a success or failure.

Overall, a project sponsor helps to streamline communications. They create trust and collaboration and keep problems from escalating. In terms of issues, they set up the instrument to identify problems with schedule, cost and quality. In that sense, they’re also in charge of making sure risk management is successful. Finally, they also encourage record-keeping for historical data storage.

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