Back to Basics (Part 1): Effective Project Sponsorship

Linh Tran, Thursday 21 January 2016 | Reading time: unknown

To be successful, a project needs to have a clear plan to make sure that it’s completed on time, within scope, and on budget. That’s all there is to achieve project success, right? Not quite. Many businesses overlook one vital aspect: project sponsorship. Having a sponsor who is involved and engaged in the project from day one can make the difference between success or failure of a project. 

In our newest blog series we’ll explain the basics of project management: Methodologies, PM roles, the project management lifecycle, and much more. The first article of the series covers the topic of project sponsorship, a role that is often overlooked but that is of vital importance to the project, from the very start to the end of any project.  

What is a project sponsor?

When people hear the words ‘sponsor’ or ‘sponsorship’, their first association is probably a sports team waring jerseys plastered with logos. In project management, however, a sponsor is much more than just a financial supporter. In fact one of the main responsibilities of a project sponsor is securing funds for the project. But more than that, a sponsor is someone who stands firmly behind a project and acts as its champion, defending it against internal and external stakeholders.

In short, the project sponsor is someone from senior management who is invested in and committed to the project, who instigates it, and makes sure that everything goes according to plan.

Overview of the main responsibilities and characteristics of a sponsor

  • Keeps the project on the right track
  • Has enough influence to make decisions quickly
  • Gets buy-in from project stakeholders, particularly the C-Level
  • Raises enough funding and resources (which relies on abovementioned buy-in)
  • Identifies and mitigates risks and resolves problems

There are different approaches to project sponsorship: the sponsor can be ‘hands-on’, ‘watching’, ‘coaching’, or ‘hands-off’. Choosing the right style depends on the project. You’ll have to take into account the scale of the project, the objectives, risks, complexity, and so on. However, be warned: a ‘hands-off’ is rather tricky and rarely advisable as the sponsor’s responsibilities require at least some involvement.

Relationship between project sponsor and project manager

Now some may be a little confused, because the responsibilities of the project sponsor sound a lot like those of a project manager. In smaller businesses or smaller projects, the project manager is often also the project sponsor.

Look at it this way: a project sponsor is a project manager’s wingman or wingwoman.[Tweet this] A project sponsor can alleviate the pressures on the project manager immensely, as an effective sponsor will ensure the best possible working environment for the PM and the project team to complete the project successfully. A sponsor can also act as a sort of mentor or emotional support for the project manager – someone who shares their burden and responsibility.

Ideally, the sponsor and the project manager work closely together from the start. It’s important to remember that even though the project manager gives status reports to the sponsor and it’s ultimately the sponsor who makes the final decisions, the sponsor is NOT the boss of the project manager, but they are equals. Only then can the sponsorship be called ‘effective’.

Tips for effective project sponsorship 

Here are four practical tips on how to make the project sponsorship, and as a result the project, a success:

Hands-on but no micromanaging

Yes, a project sponsor should be hands-on but that doesn’t mean that they should be involved in each and every detail of the project. The line between hands-on and micromanaging is very thin. Avoid crossing into micromanaging territory by learning to trust the project manager to do their job well. A good guideline is: the sponsor authorizes, and the project manager executes.

Constant communication

Even though the sponsor shouldn’t be involved in the day-to-day business of the project, it’s essential that they stay in regular contact with the project manager. Decide on the frequency and method in which the project manager should report to the sponsor. This way you can make sure that you are able to deal with problems from the moment they arise and can solve them quickly.

Sponsor has authority to make decisions

When the project faces a problem or unforeseen event, time is of the essence because even small problems and delays can quickly add up and cause the whole project to derail, which usually means additional costs. To avoid letting things get this far, the project sponsor has to have the necessary authority to act quickly and make fast decisions.

Clear direction

A project has its own goals and objectives, however, its main purpose will always be to add value to the organization. But it’s easy for the project team to get caught up in the details, as they are deeply involved in the specific subject matter of the project, and lose sight of the big picture. This is why the sponsor has to constantly check that the project is still aligned with the overall business goals. Regular reports and meetings are a necessity, not an option. During these meetings the sponsor should repeat the overall goals and reiterate the importance of the project for those goals. Nothing motivates a team more than knowing that they can make a vital contribution to the company’s success.

Also read other articles from this series:

2. Project Manager versus Subject Matter Expert

3. Kick-Start Your Projects with the 5Ws and 2Hs

4. Use Earned Value Management to Measure Success

5. How to Keep Project Stakeholders Happy

6. The Project Management Life Cycle Model – A Roadmap to Success

7. The Different Project Management Office (PMO) Types

8. Top-Down Versus Bottom-Up Project Planning

9. Project Environment Analysis with PESTLE

10. How to Create a Project Network Diagram

11. How to Create a Phase-Milestone Plan

12. What You Need to Create a Meaningful Project Status Report

13. How to plan your projects backwards

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