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.
For two reasons:
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
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:
Indeed, you can also see greed and desire as forms of fear. Fear of missing out.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
Here is your ‘hard to please’ rogue Project Sponsor. Again, we can readily split this behavior into two causes, the easier and the harder.
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…
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.
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:
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.”
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…
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:
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.
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.
I think you first need to determine whether the off-message behavior derives from poor ignorance or malice.
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.
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:
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:
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:
We offer you a lot of guidance about decision-making in our two extended articles:
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.
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.
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.
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:
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:
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!)
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:
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.
You can build your strategy from a combination of:
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.
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.
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.
If so, I’d love to hear your stories and your advice, and will respond to every comment we get.
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.
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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