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Rogue Project Sponsor: What to Do when Sponsorship goes Bad

Rogue Project Sponsor
One of the things that can make your life most difficult is a rogue Project Sponsor. It’s like they have turned to the dark side. And it feels as if they no longer have your project’s best interests at heart. Let me start by re-assuring you… A truly rogue Project Sponsor is not common.

So, why should you read this?

For two reasons:
  1. Because, if it does happen to you, you need to be prepared
  2. Also, because these kind of behaviors do happen, at a low level, all too often. And, when they do, it pays to tackle them quickly, before they escalate.
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Why Do Project Sponsors go Rogue?

There can be lots of reasons. We will look at ten kinds of rogue Project Sponsor. But I think all of them boil down to one big reason: Fear.
Fear is the path to the Dark Side Master Yoda, The Phantom Menace, Lucasfilm and Twentieth Century Fox
Rogue Project Sponsor
Fear causes us to do all sorts of things. But what is your rogue Project Sponsor afraid of? It can be many things. Fear of:
  • losing power
  • losing control
  • the unknown
  • others overtaking them
  • not getting what they think is theirs
  • but, most of all, fear of failure
Indeed, you can also see greed and desire as forms of fear. Fear of missing out.

Ten Behaviors of a Rogue Project Sponsor

Here are ten behaviors that you might see in a rogue Project Sponsor. I have arranged them in an approximate order. They start with the less worrying (but still rogue) behaviors. And they end with the most serious, which I hope you will never encounter. At the less serious end of this spectrum, there is inevitably some overlap with what you get from a ‘difficult’ Project Sponsor. I have tackled this in an earlier article. There I look at six different types. Two other articles you may enjoy are:
  1. Do You Know What your Project Sponsor Wants?
  2. Eight Approaches to Engage Your Project Sponsor

Ten Ways Your Project Sponsor can Go Rogue

  1. Poking their nose into the details
  2. Never satisfied with progress or outcomes
  3. Tries to take over control of your project
  4. Speaks off-message
  5. Won’t make necessary decisions
  6. Fails to take risks seriously
  7. Goes AWOL (Absent without Leave)
  8. Forces a change of agenda (that is not justified)
  9. Focuses on their own agenda
  10. Some form of corrupt practice

Your Rogue Project Sponsor is Constantly Poking their Nose into the Details

This is where your rogue Project Sponsor is forever among the project team, or questioning you. They are micro-managing you or even usurping your authority over your team. They won’t let you make the day-to-day decisions and are acting as if they are the project manager. Which, of course, makes you nothing more than their assistant. This is clearly fear that they won’t have enough control. It can arise because of a deep-seated need for control. But, maybe it is because they don’t trust you enough. So, your first approach must be to build up their trust. Keep them constantly up-to-date with your progress, decisions, and actions. Consult them frequently.

Trust or Control?

When you do consult them, lead with your recommendation. This will allow you to flush out whether their rogue behavior is fundamentally a trust issue or a control issue.

If it is a trust issue…

Two things will build their confidence in you. First, the constant flow of information you provide. And second, your frequent recommendations, which they will endorse. Eventually, you will be able to ease-off a little. Bit-by-bit, you can feather down the amount of information and requests for guidance. They will hardly notice it. In the end, you can get to the point you should be at.

If it is a control issue…

No amount of consultation will convince them that they can leave the project to you. They will always want to be making small decisions. They may even start to make perverse choices to underline that they can override your recommendations. Now, you must find a way to accommodate this psychological need. You have to find a way to direct their need for control onto the most suitable topics, so you can satisfy it fully, without overloading yourself, and creating a shadow leadership of your project. I recommend setting up a regular and frequent checkpoint. Meet them daily if necessary and prepare an update and a number of topics to consult them on. Even take them for a walk among the team. But gently lead them to the parts of the project where you choose to have them engage at this time.

Your Rogue Project Sponsor is Never satisfied with progress or outcomes

Here is your ‘hard to please’ rogue Project Sponsor. Again, we can readily split this behavior into two causes, the easier and the harder.

Unclear Expectations lead to Expectation Creep

I’m hoping the title of this section says pretty much all I need to say. If you don’t set and agree clear enough expectations at the start of your project, there’s a price to pay. As you deliver more, your Project Sponsor starts to expect more. So the counter to this is to set and agree clear expectations for progress, budget, and delivery of outcomes right at the start. And then, you need to constantly provide reminders of these agreed objectives, alongside reports of progress and delivery. But, it’s harder if your rogue Project Sponsor is prepared to renege on that agreement…

Meeting Expectations leads to Revised Ambitions

In this scenario, your rogue Project Sponsor sees you can achieve the agreed outcomes and decides that you were too cautious in setting them. And that they (the Sponsor) were too compliant in agreeing them. You’ve clearly made life too easy for yourself and are now coasting. For this article, I’m going to assume that is not true and simply note that, sometimes, it is. I’ll choose to believe that you have been wholly professional in setting taxing but realistic objectives. And also that your professionalism and your team’s hard work mean you are hitting your targets spot-on.

So, what can you do?

Step one is to consider whether you do have some spare capacity to accommodate tougher targets. Or, indeed, whether you can accept a revised ambition by negotiating additional resource. But, sometimes, you cannot.. So now you need to play on your sponsor’s fears. Show them how close to the bone you are in achieving your outcomes. Let them see how little spare capacity you have. Then offer an option of increasing the quality, scope, or rate of delivery. But, alongside that option, set out the risks, so they can see what the consequences are of formally revising your objectives. Another approach is one I favor. It is to have two (or even more) targets to work to. At its simplest, I’ll set a:
  • Planned, or baseline, set of outcomes, budget, and progress rate
  • Stretch set of outcomes, budget, and progress rate
If things go well, I will readily adjust my stretch plan, or even adopt a double-stretch plan. But the baseline will remain. This is what we publicise. And this is the one where I will look my client and sponsor in the eye, and say:
I will deliver this.”

Your Rogue Project Sponsor Tries to Take over Control of Your Project

This is an extreme form of our first situation, with a little flavor of the second. But, at least you can argue it is honest! It’s a full on declaration of the need for control. And one option is to hand over that control; to let them take over. After all, you cannot both be in control and, if they are determined…

But is there a way to counter this?

You’re often into full-on politics here, so do be careful. You may like our article: Project Politics: How to Win The Game of Projects. Rarely will the correct approach be to go over their head, to their boss, and call them out on it. The risks are too high, both in terms of:
  • likelihood of failure
  • consequences if it goes badly for you

Executive Project Sponsor / Project Director

Here, I recommend you work with them to craft an ‘Executive Project Sponsor’ role. This leaves them with the project sponsorship responsibilities, but gives them a larger day-to-day role. This will mean you have a lesser role, of course. But it also allows you to define clearly your role and demarcate the boundaries. You keep your Project Manager title and become effectively their chief lieutenant. This is a role that is often labeled ‘Project Director’ and in my experience, the combination can work very well. This is especially so when you are a contracted Project Manager (either interim, on contract or part of a consulting team). Here the Project Sponsor/Director is your client. I have been the project manager to a full-time Project Director and we worked very well together. Our split was largely one of prestige. The Project Director tackled high-level stakeholder engagement on a day-to-day basis and we often worked together on strategy and important decisions. Crucially, we then had Steering Group that we both attended with two other senior executive team members, while two other members had non-executive roles. The Chair was the de-facto Project Sponsor at Board level, although he was actively involved for no more than two to three hours a month.

Your Rogue Project Sponsor Speaks Off-message

This one feels more like politics than projects, but it is surprisingly important. Let me cite two examples, one from my own experience and one (even worse) from the experience of a former colleague.
  1. The rogue Project Sponsor speaks badly (and inaccurately) of your project They refer in disparaging terms to the purpose, quality of deliverables, value, or progress of your project. In doing so, they cast it, your team, and your own work in a bad light. This is even worse when they do so outside of the sponsoring organization.
  2. The rogue Project Sponsor overplays or underplays project risks Arguably, overplaying risks fits into our first example, above. But under-representing the risks of your project can create flawed decision-making in your Project Board, Steering Group, or stakeholder groups. That can have significant consequences.

Ignorance or Malice?

I think you first need to determine whether the off-message behavior derives from poor ignorance or malice.

Ignorance

If it’s ignorance, it may be either because they don’t know the facts or they fail to retain them. Either way, producing handy talking points and summaries is part of the solution. So, too, is taking time to brief your sponsor, and help them to rehearse the information.

Malice

What’s going on here then? We are starting to move into some serious rogue behavior. I think you need to start by behaving politically. As soon as you catch the error, put it right:
  1. Issue a formal correction to anyone who may have heard the false information. Attribute it to simple error and soak up the fault yourself.
  2. Address it gently, but firmly, with your sponsor. Make it clear that you intend to work diligently to ensure a flow of accurate information. This in effect challenges them to either:
    1. desist from that behavior
    2. continue, and force a confrontation
    3. formally require you to accede to their representation of the project
If your sponsor is truly rogue and will not desist, this is the time to cautiously escalate the issue. But be sure that you do two things:
  1. Arm yourself with all the facts and double-triple check you have everything right. This includes having as nearly as possible a set of contemporaneous records of your dialogue with your rogue Project Sponsor
  2. Do not infer malice or make accusations about your sponsor. Simply report the facts and seek advice. Set out what you consider to be the best interests of your project and of the sponsoring organization, and let the person you have escalated to make the next move.

Your Rogue Project Sponsor Won’t Make Necessary Decisions

In an ideal world, you won’t need a lot of decision-making once your project moves into its delivery stage. You will simply follow your plan. But, let’s face it… We don’t work in an ideal world. And there will be a constant need for choices and decisions. You will make many of them. But some will be above your pay grade. You will need your sponsor to make a decision before you can move forward with confidence. So, if your sponsor goes rogue and cannot or will not make the decisions you need, your project will stall. Or maybe you’ll need to make the choices yourself, and take the governance risk on your own shoulders. We need to look at three scenarios here. Your rogue Project Sponsor is:
  1. Unable to reach a decision Here, you need to find out their blockers, and lay out the choices and implications clearly. Give them a suitable methodology for evaluating the options.
  2. Unwilling to make a decision Find out what their underlying concern is. Often it is fear of the consequences of getting it wrong. So make them aware of the consequences of not making the decision.
  3. Makes decisions without proper process Lay out the decision in a structure that drives them through the process. If necessary, impose a process ahead of putting the final choice in their hands.
We offer you a lot of guidance about decision-making in our two extended articles:

In All Cases, Look to Your Governance Structure

One of the principle purposes of project governance is decision-making. Above or around your rogue Project Sponsor should be a strong governance body. If there is not, setting one up is your next step. You need a Project Board or Steering Group when you cannot rely on your sponsor, so encourage them to set one up and, if necessary, gently canvas some other stakeholders to build up some pressure. Once you have such a group, you can resolve all three reasons for not getting a decision from your sponsor. All you need to do is refer the decision to your Project Board. If you need to, set up the decision in a way that compels the discussion to follow a sound process.

Your Rogue Project Sponsor Fails to Take Risks Seriously

Now we are starting to get into project-threatening behaviors. And, while I rarely advise unilateral action, this is one circumstance where I do. As project manager, I believe you have the final call on risk management. So, if your sponsor will ignore or diminish the level of one risk, or your entire risk profile, you must not. Rather, you should continue to manage your risks actively, according to your best professional judgement.

So, why does it matter if your sponsor goes rogue on this issue?

Sometimes, risk management needs funding. Often this is to secure contingency plans and fall-backs, which need additional resources, assets, or contracts. Here is another time you can usefully escalate the case to a Project Board. Another approach is to recast the risk mitigation as a necessary part of an evolving project plan. Represent the contingencies as standard procedures and label them as related to Health & Safety or Security, for example.

Your Project Sponsor Goes AWOL (Absent without Leave)

Don’t know, don’t care, not interested, no time, I never asked for it. Maybe, they do in fact, disappear and cannot be reached. Whichever, you now effectively have no Project Sponsor. There’s a three step escalation I recommend for this:
  1. First, try to engage your sponsor enough to move forward By this I mean, get their help in finding their replacement. They want to step down, and you need a replacement. A little effort from them here, allows them a face-saving, graceful exit. And it gives you some say in getting someone you can rely on.
  2. Second, go around or above them Appeal for help elsewhere. Maybe seek out a replacement and encourage them to engineer the swap. Or, alternatively, look for help in finding and appointing a new sponsor. In both cases, take the ‘for the good of the project’ line, and avoid casting blame on your rogue Project Sponsor.
  3. Third, if no-one is willing to sponsor your project… Then no-one will miss it, if it doesn’t happen. Never proceed with a project that has no sponsor. Inform the people at the top of the situation, and make plans for an orderly shut down and archiving. If that does not flush out a formal sponsor, then follow your close-down plan.

Your Rogue Project Sponsor Changes the Project Agenda

Innocently, they may simply mis-read the project agenda and get it wrong. And I should note here, of course, that you may have got it wrong too. Less innocently, though, they may be seeking to shift the agenda. This is fine, as long as they and the project team follow proper process:
  • The changes are endorsed by the organization, at a strategic level. And the decision is made in an accountable and rigorous way.
  • You place the change into a formal change control process, so the differing outcomes, costs, schedule, risks , and impacts are transparent and auditable.
It seems to me that the commonest reason for a Project Sponsor to try to change the project’s agenda unilaterally is as an expedient, rather than through malice. So work with them to find a suitable minimum level of governance overlay, that will keep things proper, but allow the agility they need. Because, if their motivation is not so noble, and they are therefore reluctant to expose the change to due process, you’ll need to consider the next step up in seriousness. (Or even two steps!)

Your Rogue Project Sponsor wants to Focus on their Own Agenda

This is getting bad. But let’s save the worst for our final category and assume here that the motivation is something like one of these:
  • Glory Seeking Looking to shift the agenda to take advantage of a situation and be seen as some sort of hero/heroine.
  • Responsibility Shedding Motivated by fear, the rogue sponsor is trying to change the agenda to reduce the risk that they could need to take responsibility for a perceived failure.
  • Social Pleasing Making changes to try to please or appease an ‘important person’. This is a political act, but can rapidly lead to the dark side.
  • Power Play Wanting to increase the scope or strategic importance of a project as a base for increasing their organizational power levels – or maybe shoring up a waning power base.
  • Score Settling Perhaps the nastiest reason for pursuing an agenda is to exact some form of revenge on some one or some organizational unit.
I’m afraid you will need to call them out on this. And do it out of love, because these behaviours can readily lead to the next and final level of rogue behavior, deep into the dark side.

Your Strategy

You can build your strategy from a combination of:
  • A quiet word with your rogue project sponsor
  • A quiet word with one of their trusted colleagues and peers
  • Escalation to the Project Board / Steering Group
  • Escalation to their superior or  someone else senior to them
  • Share your concerns and approach with a trusted colleague, coach, or mentor.
Be careful. You are in a highly political game now. But you do need to try. Your integrity depends upon tackling this honestly, fairly, respectfully, and transparently. You may do the right thing and suffer as a result. In my view this is better than doing nothing (the wrong thing) and muddling thorough.

Your Rogue Project Sponsor Engages in Some form of Corrupt Practice

Here, an over-focus on the ‘what’s-in-it-for-me factor’ has led them to overstep the mark. They may be in breach of policies, or neglect a proper procedure. They may out-right be breaking the law. You have no choice. You must speak with someone independent and senior, or an appropriate member of an audit team as soon as possible. And you must gather and secure whatever evidence you have, and hand it over, getting a receipt. Where you observe mis-behavior, or learn of it in conversation or by overhearing it, make notes as soon as possible and as fully as you can. Date and time them, and record the place and people present. Make copies. And then find out your organizaton’s procedures. If you have a trusted senior colleague or mentor, consider whether procedures (and expediency) make it wise to confide in them.

Under no circumstances confront the rogue Project Sponsor yourself.

What good can come of this? Are they likely to say: ‘okay, you’re right. I’ll stop and report myself’? I don’t think so. They will more likely deny it. If they are innocent, then following the process will give them their chance to defend their actions. Possibly, they will attempt to draw you in or suborn you in some way. maybe they will imply you have been in some way complicit, and then seek to get you to take an action that will secure your guilt and therefore make you complicit.

Have you Faced these issues?

If so, I’d love to hear your stories and your advice, and will respond to every comment we get.

Do you agree with my recommendations?

Or do you have ideas to add for others to read? Again, I’d love to hear your advice, and will respond to every comment we get.

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 a successful project manager, leading large project teams and delivering complex projects. In 2016, Mike launched OnlinePMCourses.

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