SRO, Project Sponsor, Executive, or Director. Whatever you call them, they lay a vital role in your project’s success or failure. But what do the terms mean, what is the job role they need to fulfil, and what capabilities do they need? Let’s investigate in depth.
After the Project Manager, there is no role as important as that of your Project Owner. There are plenty of labels around, which can cause a lot of confusion. So I will cover these seven topics:
The most widely-used term, by far, is Project Sponsor. In fact, I’d say this is the standard Project Management term for the project owner. The others tend to appear in either:
If you are determined to speed read or skip over this whole ‘defining terms’ section, you’ll want a quick summary. In a nutshell, the Project Owner role has many titles. They all boil down a requirement to:
So, let’s start with Project Sponsor. Both the PMI and the APM define this term.
SponsorA Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge, sixth edition
A person or group who provides resources for the project, program, or portfolio and is accountable for enabling success.
Project Management Institute (PMI), 2017
SponsorAPM Body of Knowledge, 7th edition
A critical role as part of the governance board of any project, programme or portfolio. The sponsor is accountable for ensuring that the work is governed effectively and delivers the objectives that need individual needs.
Association for Project Management (APM), 2019
The IPMA regards Project Sponsor and Project Owner as synonymous. However, they do not define the term itself (oddly), but see the Project Sponsor as one of the Project Leaders:
Project LeaderProject Excellence Baseline version 1.0, Table 2: Terms and Definitions
A person who has a role or position in a permanent or project organisation that makes him/her accountable for defining and/or enabling success of the business case, the project or its part (eg project sponsor, project manager, team leader).
IPMA Global Standard, International Project Management Association
The one word that comes up in all three definitions is ‘accountable’. But I’d like to highlight some other words that are repeated in different combinations:
All of these role definitions contain something of value. But none contains a broad enough assessment for my liking. Here’s one I prefer:
Project SponsorBe on the Inside: Decode the Jargon of Project Management, Second Edition
Also referred to Project Executive, Senior Responsible Owner (SRO) or Project Director. Represents the needs of the organisation to the project and the needs of the project to the organisation. Acts as ‘manager’ to the Project Manager. Part of the project governance process, the sponsor will either contribute to, or be wholly responsible for, oversight and decision-making. They are supported by a project board or steering group.
Free eBook by Dr Mike Clayton, OnlinePMCourses, 2019
Project Director is a common enough job title, but its detailed definition tends to be particular to an individual organization. We can assume that a Project Director will have overall accountability for deliver of a project and that the term is an alternative to that of Project Sponsor.
However, do not confuse it with the role of Projects Director. This tends to be a corporate leadership role and has responsibility for all projects within an organization or a part of the organization. They are therefore the owner of a portfolio of projects. But they may or may not also be the owner of individual projects within that portfolio.
The term Project Executive is used within the PRINCE2 methodology.
ExecutiveManaging Successful Projects with PRINCE2, sixth edition
The individual with overall responsibility for ensuring that a project meets its objectives and delivers the projected benefits. This individual should ensure that the project maintains its business focus, that it has clear authority, and that the work, including risks, is actively managed. The executive is the chair of the project board. He or she represents the customer and is responsible for the business case.
Axelos Limited, 2017
Note that this is consistent with our use of Project Sponsor, with the word ‘responsibility’ used here, rather than ‘accountability’. In my analysis, this word choice is also equivalent. Here, we should note:
The 6th edition of the PRINCE2 manual describes (section 7.3.6) sponsor and Senior Responsible Owner (SRO) as alternate names for the executive. Whilst the glossary does not list SRO, it does describe a sponsor…
SponsorManaging Successful Projects with PRINCE2, sixth edition
The main driving force behind a programme or project. PRINCE2 does not define a role for the sponsor, but the sponsor is most likely to be the executive on the project board, or the person who has appointed the executive.
Axelos Limited, 2017
This gives us two very useful ideas:
In addition to PRINCE2, Axelos publishes a whole array of best practice guides and methodologies. Among them is Managing Successful Programmes. And this is where we can find a clear definition of the Senior Responsible Owner (SRO).
Senior Responsible OwnerManaging Successful Programmes, third edition
The single individual with overall responsibility for ensuring that a project or programme meets its objectives and delivers the projected benefits.
If this looks familiar, it should. Because it matches the PRINCE2 Project Executive role but operates at program level. Within the program, the SRO appoints Project Executives (or sometimes take on the role themselves).
From what we have seen, we can identify two essential conclusions:
One additional piece of advice is this… The definition is nothing more than a handy explanation. Instead, what matters is the role description. That’s what we tackle next. And you should draft your own, to meet the needs of your project and the prevailing culture of your organization or client.
The Project Sponsor or SRO has responsibilities to:
We’ll take them one at a time.
The Project Sponsor is responsible for the governance of the project. Although the Project Manager who is responsible for setting it up, the Sponsor is accountable to the organization for the good governance of their project. The sponsor or SRO must therefore work with the Project Manager to ensure that:
There are three primary roles for Project Governance:
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Let’s look at each of these three in turn:
The Sponsor’s primary governance role is to determine the project outcomes that will serve the organization. In doing so, they must:
Clearly, the Project Manager will make many day-to-day decisions. But big decisions that affect the project are the responsibility of the SRO or Sponsor. Indeed, should the decision extend beyond the authority the organization has given to the Sponsor, they will need to consult and seek a decision from a higher tier of authority within the organization. These decisions might include:
The Sponsor must ensure that the project team follows the brief and works within any organizational constraints that include:
Beyond adhering to constraints, the Sponsor will oversee:
One way the Sponsor or SRO will discharge these roles is through a Project Board or Steering Group. Typically, it would be the Sponsor who forms, convenes, and chairs this governance body. In consultation with the Project Manager, the Project Sponsor will identify the right roles for the group. Then, the Sponsor will recruit individuals to fill the roles and brief them. The sponsor may also be responsible for:
The Project Sponsor needs to be a visible champion for the Project. This means promoting the Project, as needed, both within and outside the businesses. They must be the conspicuous business leader who says:
“On behalf of this organization, I say ‘we need this project’”
This should include promoting the project among:
But the sponsor also needs to provide tangible day-to-day support to the project and the project team.
The Project Sponsor helps to make the Project happen. So, part of their role is to overcome obstacles that are blocking its way. Whether it’s finding the right resources, getting a tricky question answered, or operating at a political level, we can see the Project Sponsor as being like a movie producer. Their contacts and willingness act as the fixer of last resort get things moving when the Project Manager has exhausted all their own contacts, experience, and ideas. This part of the role involves:
The Project Manager and their team are responsible for the stakeholder engagement strategy and its day-to-day management. However, the Sponsor will support them by working with stakeholders at a senior level, where the sponsor’s relationships, experience, authority, or status allow them to be the most effective representative of the project. This aspect of the role requires:
The Project Manager has a challenging job, often under pressures of time, budget, and politics. They need a supporter who can listen to their concerns and help them through the process. It is the Project Sponsor who provides that support to their Project Manager.
To fulfil this part of their role, the Project Sponsor must:
But there is also a mentoring role for the Project Sponsor.
As well as supporting their Project Manager, the Sponsor also has a role to guide them appropriately. But they should do this in such a way as to avoid directing the PM and therefore leaving them feeling disempowered. This is a fine balancing act, and it involves deploying their experience of:
As well as helping the Project Manager with advice, guidance, and support, they need to help the PM stay at their best. This means the Project Sponsor provides a constructive challenge to their Project Manager.
This aspect of the Project Sponsor role is about acting as a critical friend to the Project Manager, and bringing an additional – ideally more objective – perspective. The essential skill is asking questions that get to the heart of what is going on.
The Project Sponsor or SRO role is a big one. To fill it well, an executive needs:
Here are my priorities for Project Sponsor competencies.
There will be different views about how important specific experience is, for the Sponsor role. The real answer is probably highly situational. However, it is likely that some understanding, skills, and experience in the following areas will be helpful. For many of them, you may consider it essential!
Of course, Sponsors do not come into the world fully-formed. So, where a new Sponsor has gaps in their knowledge and experience, they might seek either:
A Project Sponsor needs to be able to assimilate a large amount of information and think critically about what they receive. They must be able to both:
Asking the right questions at the right time is a critical skill. This means an ability to step back from making quick assumptions. Sponsors need to be able to connect the dots and make sure they are connecting them up the right way.
Project Sponsors also need the twin abilities to listen and to influence. There are many people they need to keep informed. And they must be able to influence stakeholders and help drive their project through, by connecting with people across the organization.
A big part of this is the ability to articulate a vision and describe what success is and is not. This will create the clarity to help the Project Manager and their team stay true to the core vision for the project.
Project Sponsors need to be able to make the hard decisions. And, to support this, Sponsors need to stay calm, clear, and focused under pressure.
Here are some other articles and videos you may enjoy:
Every Project Manager has worked with a Project Sponsor. And some have also worked as Project Sponsor. So I’d love to hear your thoughts, questions, and opinions in the comments below.
Dr Mike Clayton is one of the most successful and in-demand project management trainers in the UK. He is author of 14 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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