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Eight Approaches to Engage Your Project Sponsor

A project without a Project Sponsor is like a restaurant without a proprietor. When everything runs smoothly, no-one notices the absence. But when you need a big decision, somebody needs to make it.

Project Sponsorship is not just about accountability. It’s about getting the direction and oversight of your project right. It is a means of projecting the organization from some of the major risks from your project.

But what if your Project Sponsor doesn’t want to get fully involved?

How involved is your Project Sponsor?

8 Approaches to Engage Your Project SponsorThis is the goldilocks question. And the commonest answers I hear to it are, in order of frequency:

1. ‘Not enough’ 

2. ‘A bit too much’

And the rarest answer of all:

3. ‘Just about the right amount.’

I’ll return to the problem of an over-meddlesome sponsor in a future article. In this article I want to suggest eight approaches to engaging a sponsor who is not giving your project enough attention.

Governance Deficit

This problem is common.  Let me explain what I mean by the term ‘Governance Deficit’.

Typically,senior executives spend most of their time overseeing day-to-day,business-as-usual activities. These are the functional activities set out in the job descriptions.

Projects represent the future of your organization. Literally, each project builds change that leaders design to improve your sales, service, cost structure, asset base, or any other aspect of what makes your oganization succeed. Yet today, project represent the greatest sources of risk to your organization.

So here are two good reasons why a project demands disproportionately high levels of senior executive (and even non-exec) attention. Yet proportionately, projects often get less attention than business-as-usual activities. I think this is ultimately a ‘comfort zone’ thing.

Here is a simple exercise:

  1. Get an estimate of the total annual expenditure (capital and revenue) of your organization (that should be easy).
  2. Make an estimate of the total annual expenditure on project activities (including the cost of people’s time).
  3. Calculate the proportion of Project to total activity. Typically this will fall in the range 10-30 per cent.
  4. Now estimate the proportion of their time, that the most senior people in your organization collectively spend on the role of Project Sponsor. How much time do they spend:
    • overseeing projects,
    • making project decisions,
    • advocating for important projects,
    • influencing stakeholders, and
    • supporting project managers?

Does the proportion you calculate in 4 exceed the proportion in 3? If not, then your organization has a Governance Deficit.

Does #Project Management in your org have a Governance Deficit? Click To Tweet

Resolving the Governance Deficit

You almost certainly won’t be able to fix the problem across your whole organization. But you can look to your own project or projects.

For many reasons, your project needs your project sponsor to engage. You need your sponsor to engage. Without your Project Sponsor’s engagement, the risks that you and your project are exposed to are amplified. There will be:

  • fewer opportunities for problems to get caught,
  • less senior-level problem solving capacity, and
  • reduced top-cover for the decisions that you will now need to take.

Some Project Sponsors are Keen

Some senior people will want to engage with their role as Project Sponsor. They will have many reasons for doing this, from knowing it is the right thing to do and caring about your project, to wanting to take a big share of the glory in a successful project. If you can understand the levers of human motivation, then you can use these to encourage engagement.

So What are the Ways You can Engage Your Project Sponsor?

How to engage your #Project Sponsor? What will you appeal to? Click To Tweet

Approach 1: Appeal to Reason

For a logically minded, analytical sponsor, your first stop will be reason. There are lots of good reasons to take on the role of Project Sponsor,and to do it well. Develop a structured argument, based on good practices, organizational policies and needs, risk profiles, or whatever compelling rational case you can make.

Some of these reasons will also help you with the other approaches below. You can frame them so that they trigger emotional cues. Here are a few good reasons to engage with Project Sponsorship:

  • It will increase the likelihood of project success (and thus reflect well on the sponsor as well as advantaging the organization).
  • Sponsorship will be a useful learning, networking, and achievement experience for the Project Sponsor’s CV and long-term career.
  • It places the decision-making with the right level in the organization.
  • It gives a mechanism to oversee performance, behaviors, compliance and quality.
  • Active engagement allows the sponsor to form and cultivate valuable stakeholder relationships.
  • It keeps the Sponsor at the forefront of strategic developments.

Don’t throw the whole lot at your sponsor though. Too many reasons will weaken your argument. Which ones to use will depend on your situation, and your sponsor. My advice is choose your strongest reason to lead with and your second strongest to back it up.

Frankly, if these don’t persuade a logically-minded sponsor, then the small ones won’t either. If they do fail, then either your sponsor is rational and knows something you don’t, or they are not as analytically-minded as you thought!

Approach 2: Appeal to Sense of Purpose

We are all motivated by a sense of doing things that matter… to us. Senior people should feel a sense of commitment to their organzation. So their understanding of why the project is important, and their desire to help define and then build the future should be highly motivating. Ask questions (which will also be helpful to you in motivating your team) like:

  • What is the main reason why this project is important to the organization?
  • What are the principal benefits you see from this project, and what do they mean for the longer term?
  • How will this project fit with other big strategic initiatives?
  • What are the implications of success or failure?
  • How much does the Board know about this Project? And how can we put it more firmly on their agenda?

Approach 3: Appeal to Duty

Another primary motivator for some people is a sense of obligation and duty. For some, you can frame it more effectively with the need to comply or conform with social expectations. But either way, the need to do what is expected of us is strong in most people, once we get well past our teens.

This works best when you sponsor is a high-minded and loyal person. Remind them about the importance of good governance to your organization and how central the role of a good sponsor is to this. Frame their sponsorship role as one of service to the organization. And frame it as a responsibility that comes with their status, level of authority, or degree of skill and expertise. Or simply remind them of the extent of their experience. Help them to see how the project and the organization will benefit from their active involvement.

You can further emphasize this by asking for their help in drafting Project Terms of Reference that are in compliance with organizational procedures or regulations. This will act as a subtle reminder to your Sponsor of the governance responsibilities that go with their rank in the organization.

Approach 4: Appeal to Need for Achievement

Many of us have a high sense of satisfaction when we achieve something of substance. This is the cause of some significant frustration for many senior executives. Because they feel their days are largely spent in meetings and with paperwork. Your Project Sponsor may well feel they just don’t achieve much in their daily work.

Project Sponsorship is an opportunity to share in the successes and achievements of a project. To really make the best of this motivator, devise a plan that allows your Sponsor to do things, and tick off actions that make a difference. Help them define a role that will give them the sense of incremental achievements, as your project progresses. And of course, build them into the celebrations of milestones and product deliver.

Approach 5: Appeal to Pride

If your Project Sponsor has a streak of pride, or even arrogance, then this appeal can be highly effective. First, figure out what they take pride in. Crudely, pride can be shallow or deep:

Shallow Pride

This emphasises a sense of pride in status, reputation, bragging rights. Never mind. If that’s what you have to work with, embrace it! Stroke their ego. Imply that you cannot manage without them, that they will make all the difference, and that the glory will be theirs. You and I know that none of these are true. But prideful people are easily seduced by these ideas. And anyway, even if you used another approach to engage them, they would still believe these to be true!

Deep Pride

On the other hand, your sponsor may take pride in doing a good job, and doing it well. You’ll love this sponsor – even if sometimes, they can ask awkward questions and be demanding. Because their pride is not in making your life hard, but in doing their job properly. Ad that will mean tough challenge and difficult choices. But if that’s their lever, then help them to understand what the roles of a good Project Sponsor are. Take the time to agree with them what your expectations are of one another.

Approach 6: Appeal to Need for Power

Could it be that some senior people crave status, control, and power? Surely not.

But if you know one of these, then let them know that that a Project Sponsor has all of this. Even feel free to devise a grandiose title for the role: Project Director, Executive Project Sponsor, Project VP… whatever works in your culture for strong their ego and fitting into the org-chart!

Focus your description of their role on decision-making, rather than oversight. These aspects will sound more strategic and powerful, rather than technocratic. But here’s the valuable part of the tip… Describe lower level decision-making, and detailed oversight as more operational,or you risk this type of sponsor wanting to take control of everything. And if this happens, the consequence can easily be unbearable levels of meddling.

Approach 7: Appeal to Fear

Because we all want to feel safe and secure, this is often an effective approach. But it does risk appearing the most manipulative.

Use it with the weaker individuals, who are shying away from their sponsorship role because they sense that involvement in you project can create more risk for them. This is particularly a problem with people who sense that they are not truly equipped for the role. Let them know the danger of not engaging properly, and couple this with offering a package of support  in the form of detailed briefings and clear recommendations, so they can feel more secure in taking on the job.

One word of caution: avoid taking this approach with highly political operators: if they sense there is a risk to them, their first instinct will be to find a way to shed it, by placing that risk with someone else. And who will be the first person who comes to mind?

Approach 8: Appeal to Vanity

Last but not least; the narcissist. These people want to see their personal glory reflected in everything they do. Flattery is a core tactic to engage this kind of Project Sponsor. You’re great. You’ll make this project great. A great project like this deserves only the best sponsor. When this project succeeds, everyone will look good.

My tip, however, is that this is the most dangerous kind of sponsor. They will be all over your project like a rash when it’s going well. They’ll be scattering their pixie dust so they can say how greatly they have contributed. But… Wait until you have problems… Where are they now? Not offering you support and certainly not taking responsibility. Rather, you’ll find them on the next project,which is going well today, doing their pixie dust thing.

So, if you have any choice whatsoever, walk past this sponsor and go looking for a new one. Messages like ‘this is going to be tough’ may help you distance the vain sponsor and might help you find another.

The good governance fairy tells me every project needs a Project Sponsor. Yet sometimes I really feel that no sponsor is better than the wrong sponsor. This is where you need a strong personal network within your organization, that can help you find someone suitable.

In Conclusion

It is vital that you get your sponsor fully engage.  And your job is not to hog the glory by going it alone. So use whatever means you can to get enough time in your sponsor’s diary, and their full attention when they are working on your project.

What are your tips for engaging a good, effective Project Sponsor. Please do share them below.ease do share them below.

About the Author Mike Clayton

Dr Mike Clayton is one of the most successful and in-demand project management trainers in the UK. He is author of 13 best-selling books, including four about project management. He is also a prolific blogger and contributor to ProjectManager.com and Project, the journal of the Association for Project Management. Between 1990 and 2002, Mike was an successful project manager, leading large project teams and delivering complex projects. In 2016, Mike launched OnlinePMCourses.

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