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10 Secrets To Being a Good Sponsor

This entry is part 5 of 5 in the series Strategies for Sponsors

10 secrets1. Get the right project resources

Your role as a project sponsor is to make sure that the project can be done efficiently and effectively, and you need resources to do that. Resources can be money, equipment or people (or anything else required to get the job done).

Ask your project manager what resources are required, and be prepared to challenge (project managers have been known to inflate what’s needed in order to make sure they can secure enough resource for the project). Then negotiate with other senior leaders to give the project what it realistically needs to deliver on its objectives.

2. Make quick decisions

Project teams are expensive, so having them hanging around while you make up your mind is not a good idea. Get the information you need to make the decision, then make it, and tell people what you decided. They might not like your decision, but you’re the boss, so they’ll abide by it. Just be able to justify why you chose what you did.

Having said that, don’t rush into a decision without all the facts or you will head the project off on the wrong path.

3. Understand project management techniques

Yes, this is the job of the project manager, but you don’t want them to be able to bamboozle you with jargon. You should also have an understanding of how your work is being delivered and why the team are doing what they are. Believe me, they’re doing the best they can and if they are following a structured set of guidelines then they are probably going to get you a great result. But not if you hamper them by demanding they do things differently.

4. Know when to pull the plug

It might be your pet project, but if it’s over budget, late and no longer on track to deliver the business benefits, then it is time to part company. Throwing good money after wasted effort just to save face is stupid. So steel yourself for any potential conflict and get your project cancelled. Then get your team working on something that really will revolutionise the company.

5. Celebrate accomplishments

Everyone loves a party, and while you don’t have to be lavish you do need to reward the project team for their efforts. They will work harder and appreciate you and the project’s objectives more. Yes, it’s like bribery. But think of it more like a boost for team morale.

6. Manage financial changes

Budget changes can kill a project, so make sure that any financial changes are passed down the line to your project manager as soon as you can. Help them understand what the financial pressures are and work with them to come up with creative solutions to address any fundamental problems. This may involve cutting scope. That means taking stuff off your wish list! You can’t have everything and pay less for it. Fact.

7. Overcome ignorance

There are bound to be things that you don’t know about the way the project is being delivered and how the goals will be achieved. Software is mysterious. Project management techniques are baffling. Subject matter experts exist on a different planet. But learn.

Learn as much as you need to so that the team can’t pull the wool over your eyes. Then stop. You don’t need to code and you don’t need to understand why widgets are constructed in that way. Let your experts understand the detail.

8. Set goals

Projects need goals. Create them. Set a vision. Set objectives. Help your team understand why they are going where they are going. And give them a map to get there.

Goals give people purpose, so you’ll get better results from your team if you communicate the project goals effectively.

9. Communicate the facts

While you can communicate goals in the language of vision and values, you should keep most of your communication to facts, especially when it comes to project progress. This is also a great example to set for your project manager. Deal in concrete details, not ‘maybes’ and feelings. Get your project manager recording metrics and tracking what’s important.

10. Understand risk and reward

Risks are things that could happen. Sometimes they are bad, sometimes the things that could happen are good. Sometimes taking a risk means a bigger reward. Think about your own risk tolerance and that of the company. Be clear about the sorts of risk you are prepared for your project team to take, and the sorts of risks you want them to ask you about.

Risk is good, but it has the downside of being, well, risky. If you are risk averse your projects will cost more and take longer, but you’ll have more confidence in the outcome. Sometimes taking risks is fun, and it certainly makes projects more interesting, so don’t try to rule it out completely – that won’t work, anyway.

These 10 secrets have been taken from Strategies for Project Sponsorship by James, Taylor and Rosenhead. They appear as a list of 50 secrets in Appendix D as a summary of The Standish Group’s Chaos Manifesto 2012: The Year of the Executive Sponsor. The accompanying paragraphs are my own interpretation of the headings.


Book review: Strategies for Project Sponsorship

This entry is part 4 of 5 in the series Strategies for Sponsors

Vicki James

Vicki James, co-author of Strategies for Project Sponsorship

Did you fall into project management? Or get promoted to a project management role? Then you are probably a ‘accidental project manager’ – someone who never set out to study project management at university but who ended up doing a PM job by accident rather than design.

Now, apply that same thinking to your project sponsor. Did they study sponsorship, or did they simply end up sponsoring projects because their boss asked them to? They are an accidental sponsor.

Strategies for Project Sponsorship came out earlier this year. The book, by Peter Taylor, Ron Rosenhead and Vicki James, taps into the current trend of project leadership, by focusing on the role of the sponsor. It’s a good premise for a book, especially as it contains a lot of practical advice for helping project managers to work with the project sponsor they are given. And accidental sponsors can need a lot of help.

The accidental project sponsor

The authors write:

‘Many speak of the “accidental project manager”, but the reality is that the current generation of project sponsors can also be considered accidental project sponsors. Although they may not have any background in project management or project-based activity, having reached a senior level within their organisation based on other achievements, they have assumed that role.’

And that is where the problem lies for many project managers: working with sponsors who have no idea what they should be doing or how they can best lead a project to success from the sponsor role.

What is that role? The authors say that, “Project sponsorship is an active senior management role.” The sponsor gets funding in return for the expectation that he or she will take responsibility for the project and provide executive oversight and guidance for the project through to completion. “The project sponsor is the person in the org who cares most about the project and its success. At least she should be.”

Meeting your sponsor for the first time

Strategies For Project SponsorshipAn important day in any project is the day when the project manager first meets the sponsor. Do your homework: what else have they sponsored, who else have they worked with and what was it like? What do you think of their influence in the company?

The authors say that at this meeting the priority is to develop your relationship and capture important information that you can use for initiating the project. Use your ignorance of the project to your advantage by asking all those ‘stupid’ questions. Try to understand the drivers behind the work. This is your opportunity to impress and the book includes a suggested agenda for this first meeting to ensure it’s a useful session.

They also suggest finding out what your sponsor’s experiences of sponsoring have been like. what does she think is expected of her? Discuss decision making and time frames: the authors recommend getting your sponsor to agree to making decisions within 24 hours, so good luck with that.

Being a sponsor for the first time

The book defines what makes a good sponsor, discusses sponsorship from the project manager’s perspective, from the sponsor’s perspective and then looks at implications for organisations. In the section about being a sponsor, they stress that the role is more than just being the project’s figurehead.

Sponsorship, say the authors, is real work. They write:

“When it comes to financial accountability, it seems – at least anecdotally – that projects often go over budget, deliver late and deliver less than was expected…and there are absolutely no consequences. No one appears to be accountable and no one gets removed. Now, if something goes wrong in the “real” side of the business – sales down, profits falling, share price dropping – then it seems like something will be done and someone will be held accountable. Maybe this is because this is seen as “real” business and “real” work and as such has to be taken seriously.”

The book sets out the role of the sponsor and encourages them to ask for help when they need it. The sponsor’s role, the author’s say, includes evaluating the success of the project and understanding the difference between completing it to time/cost/quality measures and delivering proper business benefits.

Checklists and more

The problem for project managers is that they are working with sponsors who have no idea what they should be doing or how they can best lead a project to success.

The book is easy to read and full of checklists and evaluations. There are examples and case studies, and while these are generally good, Chapter 2 includes a conversation with a sponsor that would only happen in fantasy land in my experience.

There are also some new ideas. For example, the authors discuss the difference between the engagement and management of stakeholders. This is interesting because I always thought ‘engagement’ was the modern way of managing, simply a 21st Century update to project management vocab. I thought engagement replaced management in stakeholder thing, but the book challenged me to reassess that idea.

For a book that is aimed at project managers, sponsors and those making business decisions to support project managers and sponsors, it could have ended up pretty muddled. But it doesn’t. Each section is aimed at a different group but not to the exclusion of others. It helps to know how sponsors think, so that you can help them.

Strategies for Sponsorship concludes that you won’t get the perfect sponsor and you shouldn’t expect to. Therefore you need to learn to work with what you’ve got. This book will help.

Buy Strategies for Project Sponsorship on Amazon.co.uk

Buy Strategies for Project Sponsorship on Amazon.com


Top challenges for project sponsors

This entry is part 3 of 5 in the series Strategies for Sponsors

Ron Rosenhead

Ron Rosenhead, co-author of Strategies for Project Sponsorship

Recently I’ve been speaking to the authors of a new book, Strategies for Project Sponsorship. Peter Taylor told me about how to build professional relationships with project sponsors, even when you don’t like them. Vicki James shared her tips for getting the best out of your project sponsor. Today, Ron Rosenhead describes the challenges for project sponsors today and tells some stories about sponsorship.

Here’s what he had to say.

Ron, if I was a project sponsor today, what would be the top challenge I’d be facing?

The top challenge is ensuring that the project sponsor knows and plays out their role effectively. We provide a “primer” for the sponsor in the book that aligns with our Sponsorship Checklist of the 17 project sponsor responsibilities.

When we were writing the book we identified nine classifications of challenging project sponsor situations and we provide tips on how to deal with them. One of the nine is the absent sponsor. This is where there no assigned sponsor or there is an assigned sponsor but you have never met them or been able to meet them or they frequently miss meetings.

An absent sponsor is where there is no assigned sponsor or you have never met them or they frequently miss meetings.

Our research shows that too many sponsors are sponsors in name only and do not play a significant enough role in projects they sponsor.

That does sound like a challenge for project managers, and for sponsorship in general. Can you share a story about a successful or awful sponsor?

OK! The following stories were submitted by project managers who responded to our Call for Stories.

Early in my career, I worked on a project where the sponsor (to whom I directly reported) was an intense micromanager. The sponsor’s personal preferences regarding due dates should have been the first warning sign that he was going to get more and more involved.

As the project progressed, I began spending more of my time pulling together materials to keep him informed. It got to the point where he was reviewing work products line by line and I was having hour-long meetings with him morning and afternoon to review project status. Further complicating things was the fact that the sponsor reversed (and re-reversed) decisions that had been made weeks ago because he changed his mind.

It wasn’t appropriate for the sponsor to be involved in any of these decisions or work products, but I didn’t feel that I had the authority to contradict my direct supervisor. As things unravelled, I sought advice from very senior project managers and tried to explain to the sponsor the risk his actions were placing on the project. Next, a contracted senior project manager told the sponsor to back off—to no avail. The sponsor wanted to do it his way. Team morale plummeted and deadlines slipped.

I learned the valuable lesson that I have to intervene with a micromanaging sponsor much earlier and stick to the roles and responsibilities in the Project Charter from day one.

Strategies For Project SponsorshipTo balance it out, here’s another one:

Our client was a state government entity on a fixed-price contract project. The lead sponsor on the project was a director-level person from the state team. He was very knowledgeable about the policies and procedures and had a great practical vision for what could be implemented. He used to spend hours and hours with project managers, business analysts, and even developers at times to explain the nuances of design and policy. He was one of the key success factors on the project.

I was fortunate enough to work with such a sponsor; he really set the bar against which I evaluate other sponsors.

That shows the range of sponsors that project managers have to work with, and two very different outcomes. Thanks, Ron!

Buy Strategies for Project Sponsorship on Amazon.co.uk

About Ron

Ron Rosenhead is known for his highly practical approach to life alongside project management. Over 25 years as a trainer and consultant with the last 17 years specializing in helping organisations to increase the probability of project success. He has personally trained and coached over 10,000 people in the project management world; some project managers, others project sponsors. He has worked across sectors: financial services, public sector, engineering, pharmaceuticals, universities, car retailing, IT etc. He is a professional speaker and author of Deliver that Project (an e-book), is a regular blogger and tweeter. Ron regularly writes practical project management training materials which are in use all over the world.


How to get the best from your sponsor

This entry is part 2 of 5 in the series Strategies for Sponsors

Vicki James

Vicki James, co-author of Strategies for Project Sponsorship

Peter Taylor, Ron Rosenhead and Vicki James have just written a book called Strategies for Project Sponsorship, about (surprise, surprise) project sponsors. Last time I interviewed Peter about how to manage when your sponsor is rubbish. Today I’m going to share my conversatioon with Vicki. We spoke about how to get the best from your sponsor and tips for first-time sponsors. Here’s what she had to say.

Vicki, in order to get the best from your sponsor, you actually need to have one! Many projects don’t have sponsors or clear sponsorship. Why do you think that is?

Uncertainty and ignorance about the role of the project sponsors is a huge contributor to the current challenges. Unfortunately, project sponsors are not educated and trained in project best practices in their career development.

Project managers must take an active role in influencing and educating project sponsors in these best practices to get the leadership support the project requires. This is a daunting task for many project managers as their sponsors are likely higher up within their chain of command. Our book is a step in reducing these factors by providing the best practices for sponsors and arming the project manager with strategies to influence.

Project sponsors are not educated and trained in project best practices in their career development.

It’s certainly full of good advice for project managers and sponsors. If you had to pick one thing, what would be your top tip for getting the best out of your sponsor?

Here are three tips:

  1. Keep the focus of the conversations and requests on what is in the best interest of the common goal of the successful project – that is important.
  2. Frame the project and project team’s needs in terms of maximising project success.
  3. Remove personality from the conversation to have a greater influence on your project sponsors and their support.

Thanks! What about your advice for first-time project sponsors?

Remember these words from Theodore Roosevelt: “The best executive is the one who has sense enough to pick good men to do what he wants done, and self-restraint enough to keep from meddling with them while they do it.” Trust in the expertise of your project manager and other key players.

Strategies For Project SponsorshipBeing a project sponsor is best served by providing ‘servant leadership’. Remember, you are there to provide strategic leadership and tactical interference to project barriers. End each communication with, “What can I do for you (the project),” and you will be the biggest contributor to project success.

Great advice, thanks, Vicki!

Next time I’ll be speaking to the final co-author, Ron Rosenhead. He tells me what he thinks are the top challenges facing sponsors today and shares a story about sponsorship gone wrong.

Buy Strategies for Project Sponsorship on Amazon.co.uk

About Vicki James

Vicki is passionate about learning and sharing best practices in project management and business analysis. Certified in both project management and business analysis, she provides a broad view to support project governance and processes. Vicki spent 11 years in the public sector successfully delivering projects to support governmental operations. Today she provides private consulting to government and private industry clients in addition to writing and presenting on all things project. Vicki is a contributor to The Complete Project Manager (2012) by Randall Englund and Alfonso Bucero as well as a popular blogger and Tweeter.


Project Sponsorship 101

This entry is part 1 of 5 in the series Strategies for Sponsors

Peter Taylor

Peter Taylor, co-author of Strategies for Project Sponsorship

How good is your project sponsor? Peter Taylor, Ron Rosenhead and Vicki James have just written a book about project sponsors which aims to address some of the challenges facing project managers working with sponsors, and to help sponsors themselves get better at the job of sponsoring.

I spoke to the authors of Strategies for Project Sponsorship to find out more about project sponsorship and why they thought the world needed to hear more about it. First in the hot seat, Peter Taylor.

Peter, let’s start off with something easy. How do you define a project sponsor?

A great question to start with as it was the very question we, as authors, began with as well. The major project management bodies define sponsorship in varying ways but we didn’t really feel that there was single clear and comprehensive definition – you won’t find one in a dictionary for sure for a project sponsor.

In the book we list what we feel are the 17 key responsibilities of a project sponsor but these can be summarised in what we have termed ‘balanced project sponsorship’: that is someone who is involved in the project, objective about the project, supportive of the project and project manager, and  reactive to project needs.

Another view is simply that the executive sponsor is ultimately responsible for the success and failure of the project. We are not so sure that is accurately reflected at senior management levels since whilst many project managers seem to be challenged on why a project might be slipping or failing, very few sponsors seem to suffer a similar experience.

OK, so what should I look out for in my project sponsor?

Trying to deliver a project without project sponsorship is like playing football without a rule book, a coach, any funds for new players, or even a referee.

It is said that a project is one small step for a project sponsor and a giant leap for the project manager. Well, wouldn’t all project managers feel so much better if they knew that the project sponsor’s ‘one small step’ would ensure that the complementary ‘giant leap’ would lead to a safe and secure final landing?

Karen Tate[1] said that ‘trying to manage a project without project management is like trying to play a football game without a game plan’. We decided that in comparison ‘trying to deliver a project without project sponsorship is like playing football without a rule book, a coach, any funds for new players, or even a referee’. Not a good situation at all.

A potentially bad project sponsor will exhibit some or all of these behaviours.

To be a successful partner in this project then they need to be connected to you the project manager and to the project team, if they are remote then that is a red flag for sure. And if they are too busy to meet, to discuss, and to aid then that paints that red an even darker shade. If they avoid helping in the assignment of project roles and responsibilities and never have time to ‘timely’ approve documents then you have a problem that is reaching critical status. Throw in a dash of blaming anyone but themselves for any problems then it is probably time to walk away. You are in real trouble (and so is your project).

A bad sponsor is potentially your worst nightmare.

Conversely a good project sponsor will behave in the opposite manner in these areas and will happily act as advisor to the project manager and will focus on removing obstacles in the path of project success.

In my experience, project managers don’t get to choose their sponsor. Would you agree?

Yes. It is a little like the saying ‘you can pick your friends but you can’t pick your relatives’, the same is true of project sponsors. You get what you get.

If you can’t choose your sponsor, how can you build a professional working relationship with them if you don’t like them much?

Strategies For Project SponsorshipThe first task is to understand your project sponsor. You can learn a great deal about ‘where your sponsor is at’ through some simple open questions at the start of your relationship. Ask them about their ‘hopes’ for the project and their ‘fears’ about the project. What do they believe this project can deliver to the business, do they believe in the project even? And what concerns them, what do they see as the issues on the horizon that could impact on the project success.

The more that you know the better you can shape the right working relationship. Also, the more likely you are to find something that you both do connect on.

Once you understand the sponsor you have then the next task is to learn the ways that they operate. If you don’t have personal experience then you can do this through asking other project managers who have worked with them in the past for their experiences, and this will allow you to plan a strategy to build a working relationship.

The book spends plenty of time focusing on how a project manager can learn to work with (or around in some cases if we are honest) project sponsors of various types. We talk about the busy sponsor, the absent sponsor, the sponsor who wants to be the project manager and many other ‘typical’ sponsor types that project managers regularly encounter. And we offer advice and guidance on ‘managing’ each of these types.

Great stuff, thanks Peter.

Next time I’ll share what one of Peter’s co-authors, Vicki, recommends to get the best out of your sponsor.

Buy Strategies for Project Sponsorship on Amazon.co.uk

About Peter

Peter is a dynamic and commercially astute professional who has achieved notable success in Project Management. His background is in project management across three major business areas over the last 26 years, MRP/ERP systems with various software houses and culminating in his current role with Infor, Business Intelligence (BI) with Cognos, and product lifecycle management (PLM) with Siemens. He has spent the last 7 years leading PMOs and developing project managers and is now focusing on project based services development with Infor. He is a professional speaker as well as the author of ‘The Lazy Project Manager’ (Infinite Ideas) and ‘Leading Successful PMOs’ (Gower) and ‘The Lazy Winner’ (Infinite Ideas).


[1] Karen Tate, PMP, a past board member of PMI. Collected on the Project Auditors LLC website: http://www.projectauditors.com/Company/Project_Management_Quotes.html


Project Management in the Hundred Acre Wood

100 Acre Wood

We’ve been doing 360 degree assessments at work and when I was asked to describe a colleague as a shape, colour, animal or fictional character, and to explain my reasoning, I drew a blank. Matching shapes to people is not my strong point.

Some of you may know that my Master’s degree is in Children’s Literature. After pondering what I could reply to that 360 survey question, I suddenly realised that there are loads of great characters in children’s books. One of my all-time favourites is The House at Pooh Corner, and I saw that the Hundred Acre Wood, where Pooh has his adventures, is a microcosm of the world of project stakeholders.

Project stakeholders in the Hundred Acre Wood

Winnie-the-Pooh: The enthusiastic team member. Not a leader, but very loyal. Needs direction.

Rabbit: The busiest member of your project team. However, you don’t see very much output. Rabbits don’t achieve very much but like to think themselves very important.

Eeyore: The harbinger of doom on the project team. A plodder. Will do the job but is reluctant to change. Another loyal follower, if motivated the right way.

Tigger: Creative, inspiring and enthusiastic. Brings the team up when everyone is feeling demotivated. But it is hard to rein in a Tigger and get them to focus their energy on something useful.

Owl: Often in a project sponsor role. Wise. Authoritarian but not always right. Works best with guidance and recommendations which allow them to choose the next steps.

Christopher Robin: The project manager. Calm, level-headed. Christopher Robins help people out of a fix and are always willing to muck in.

Do you recognise any of these from your own project team? Or would you describe your team members as different characters from children’s books?


Photo credit: Eric Ritchley on Flickr





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