Doors open. Resources mysteriously appear. Money is available when previously you were told there was none. People who typically never show up to meetings or respond to emails start getting in touch.
A great project sponsor really does oil the wheels of a project.
But what makes a good sponsor?
In their book, Project-Driven Creation, Jo Bos, Ernst Harting and Marlet Hesslelink talk about the 4 A’s of a good project sponsor: authorised, available, attached and accomplished. Their book is what drives many of the projects in The Netherlands, being as it is a complete method and handbook to getting work done. The part about sponsors is less than a page, but it’s worth calling out here and I’ve added my take on the 4 A’s as well.
Here we go…
First, your project sponsor needs to be authorised to get the work done. They should be formally powerful within the organisation so that if they say something is going to get done, you know that they have the means to make it so. This could be anything from securing the resources that you need to giving out a message about the project and having everyone believe it.
Generally, by the time your project is approved and there is a business case in place, you’ll be working with a senior manager who is accountable for driving this element of business strategy. Hopefully this is the easiest of the 4 A’s to tick off.
Check: Ask around. Is your project sponsor seen to be senior and influential? The authors advise that ideally he or she should be one level in the hierarchy up from the line and functional managers involved in the project.
Your project sponsor should be available. They should be able to come to meetings when you need them, and available to deal with project risks and escalations that you can’t manage yourself because they fall outside of your delegated authority. You might not know if this is going to happen when the project starts, but as soon as you start getting into the first few weeks of initiation, you’ll start to get a feel for whether they are going to continually let you down.
Bos, Harting and Hesslelink suggest that if you are dealing with a very senior-level project sponsor, that they delegate authority to someone more accessible who can work with you on a day-to-day basis.
Check: How much time has your sponsor got to give the project? Ask them, and you might be surprised by the answer. If it isn’t very much, have a backup plan for how you are going to get decisions made and resources secured if you can’t get access to them to do so. You can also assess their availability by asking other people who have worked with them for their take on how accessible they are.
In my experience, project sponsors that truly care about a project are going to make themselves available because it is important to them. And that brings us on to…
By ‘attached’, Bos, Harting and Hesslelink are talking about commitment. How committed is the sponsor to the project? “The answer to this determines its chance of success,” they write.
This is true, and I’ve seen projects wither and die because senior sponsorship faded away after the initial burst of action. In fact, I’ve even managed projects that have ended up in that situation. As the project manager, you are left caretaking something that no one is bothered about and wondering if you should be wrapping it up and closing down, or trying to drum up support from someone else.
You want a sponsor with staying power; someone who will stick with it, even if you hit bumps on the road on the way to delivery.
Check: You can take a guess at whether the project is something that your sponsor will care about for the duration. If it ties back to strategy, or even better, their personal objectives for the year, then they’ll be in it for the longer term. Nothing creates commitment more than knowing your bonus depends on successful delivery!
Ha! I did giggle when I read that one. The authors write: “Success as a sponsor demands different knowledge, experience and skills than those required for leading a line department.” I agree, but the reality is most people who end up in project sponsorship roles don’t have that knowledge, experience and skills.
To be fair to Bos, Harting and Hesslelink they do go on to say that as a project leader you might end up training an inexperienced sponsor. I think that happens more regularly than many project managers might realise, and you are probably doing it without realising as well.
I can probably count on my fingers the number of “accomplished” project sponsors that I have worked with, and that’s not a reflection of the managers and executives on my project teams over the years. They have often been incredibly accomplished in their own field but not experienced in a project environment.
Check: Talk to your sponsor about their experience (without making them feel stupid). Try to establish what you need to explain about projects that would help your sponsor find it easier to work with you on this one.
Those are the 4 A’s that your project sponsor needs in order to be successful, according to Project-Driven Creation. What else do you think it’s important for sponsors to have or do? Let us know in the comments below.