The Project Sponsor

An unengaged sponsor sinks the ship.   – Angela Waner
  Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

The project sponsor is one of the most important stakeholders you will have on any given project. As I mentioned in my post about project stakeholders, the role of the project sponsor is to “legitimize the change” – or provide the mandate, direction, resources, oversight, budget, and outward support of the project and its outcomes. Sponsors are also responsible for making decisions, removing roadblocks, and communicating to other stakeholders.

Sounds like a lot of responsibility... and it is. Let’s divide the sponsor’s role into two parts.

First, there is the project oversight aspect of the project sponsor role. The sponsor will provide you with the initial mandate and direction for the project, including the business case and high-level goals that appear on the project charter. She can then work with other leaders to ensure that the project is resourced correctly based on the work that needs to get done, and also allocate a budget for the project. Then throughout the duration of the project, she will provide oversight to help make decisions, mitigate risks, and start building the support that will be needed as you and the team prepare to go live with the solution.

As a project manager, you should keep your sponsor informed so that she is never surprised and can help support and communicate clearly about the project. Having regular touchbase meetings – either separately or with the entire team present – is  a good practice to put into place at the start of a project, which will provide you with a forum to update the sponsor on the work that has been done to date and ask her for help where it is needed. The sponsor should understand the key milestones of the project and any backup details that would provide insight into the project status. And finally, you should always make sure that she hears any red flags from you and not from the grapevine, so keep that line of communication open.

The second part of the sponsor's role is, well, the true sponsorship (for lack of a better word) piece. When you think about actually making a change stick within the organization – that is, changing people’s behavior to help adopt a new way of doing things – it is likely that neither the project manager nor the project team members have the status or authority to influence the change targets to do things differently. It is not to say that they are not respected, but they are just not in the right position from an organizational perspective to truly motivate or instigate change.

For that reason, the sponsor is usually a key role model and communicator when it comes to rolling out the project outcomes. She can keep key leaders across the organization informed throughout the project duration to maintain alignment to the project goals. And then in many cases, she is asked to communicate directly to the project targets once the solution – the new systems, processes, tools, behaviors, etc. – is ready to be launched. When the launch message is delivered in a genuine, clear, and thoughtful manner from someone with authority, the likelihood of adoption increases.

Not only should the sponsor be someone who is respected by the change targets, but she should also be someone who can instill consequences on people who do not adopt the change. As a project manager or project team member, that latter part regarding consequences is usually not the case. Someone with authority – the project sponsor – is needed to seal the deal.

All of that said, having a project sponsor does not guarantee complete and immediate adoption! Change is hard for most people to grasp, even if it is positive change. Strong sponsorship is one piece of the change management puzzle, but it is certainly an important one! If your sponsorship is poor, you can be sure that the rollout of your project will fail.

So, identify the project sponsor early in your project – if not right at the start. Actually, the sponsor should be coming to you with the project scope! Outline and agree on your expectations for what the sponsor role means. And then meet with her regularly, ask her to help remove roadblocks and make decisions, and prep her to communicate about the change.

If you do not have a leader talking the talk and really walking the walk – outwardly supporting the change, its goals, its potential outcomes, new processes and systems, etc. – people will not get on board. And you and your team would have done all of that hard work for nothing!