Five Questions to Ask Your Project Sponsor

Judge a man by his questions rather than his answers.   - Voltaire

The project sponsor is one of the most important stakeholders you will have on any given project. This individual usually has a major stake in the game, and should therefore provide you with resources, budget dollars, and direction, as well as visibility and support as you and the team are working toward your objectives.

It is important that you build a good relationship with the project sponsor and come to an agreement regarding how you will work together and what her expectations are. She will likely be the face of the change when talking with other leaders and also as she communicates to project targets, and learning her working style will help you stay aligned at all times.

Here are a few questions you can ask the sponsor to help build your relationship with her and ultimately deliver a successful project.

What does success look like to you?

This information should be outlined in the project charter. And who is a key stakeholder that helps you build the project charter? The project sponsor!

A project is typically borne out of the strategy and goals of the project sponsor, so understanding exactly what she is looking for a project to deliver is key in understanding what the goals should be, how they should be measured, and when the team can say the implementation was a success and/or that they have realized the project goals. Having the sponsor paint a picture of the future – of what good looks like and how it is different from today – will help you steer the project team toward a north star and keep them aligned to that intent throughout the duration of the project.

What decisions can be made by the project team, and which do you want to make?

Clarifying decision-making responsibilities at the start of a project is a critical requirement for any piece of work you are managing. It helps eliminate confusion as to who “has the D” (decision) and sets expectations as to project governance roles.

  Image courtesy of jesadaphorn at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of jesadaphorn at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

The hope is that the project sponsor will not want to make all the project decisions, as some (or even many) are better left with the project team, as they are closest to the issues and details that will help them make informed decisions. But there are definitely some decisions the sponsor should make, especially when it comes to resources, budget, and decisions that affect the overall direction of the project. You can use a tool like the RAPID model to help clarify decision-making roles at project inception.

How do you want to receive information?

There are many ways in which someone can receive information, and you should work with the project sponsor to understand her preferences.

Does she like details or prefer high-level updates? Does she want to meet face-to-face or receive updates via email? What frequency of updates is most appropriate given the current project stage, and how will that change over time? How does she want you to raise risks? What conversations does she want to have with you as the project manager alone vs. with the team present?

Some of these ways of working will come out over time, but others can be identified as you begin your working relationship.

Can I rely on you to talk the talk and walk the walk?

We need the sponsor to understand her role as the sponsor. Read this earlier post to see how I outline the project sponsor role. Once you review expectations with the sponsor, confirm that she understands the role, agrees with it, and commits to it.

While this steps seem formal, it is all about clarifying roles so that there is no confusion or misses down the road.

Where can I help the most?

Understanding what keeps the sponsor up at night is critical. She has the background as to why and how the project came to be, what the biggest challenges are, who the key stakeholders are, and what success looks like. After you explain your role as a project manager, ask her what about the project concerns her the most, and explain how you will commit to identifying and mitigating any risks you see along the way.

And then actually follow up! She needs to see you as a trusted resource who keeps her informed and helps her solve her biggest problems.

Getting on the "good side" of the project sponsor by understanding her needs and concerns is a great way to both build relationships and also improve the health of the project. So, sit down with your leader and ask her these questions, and everyone will benefit!