A project without a Project Sponsor is like a restaurant without a proprietor. When everything runs smoothly, no one notices their absence. But when you need a big decision, somebody needs to be there 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 protecting the organization from some of the major risks from your project.
We’ll answer that question in two stages:
This 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 return to the problem of an over-meddlesome sponsor in How to Handle a Difficult Project Sponsor: [7 Different Types].
But, in this article, I want to suggest eight approaches to engaging a sponsor who is not giving your project enough attention.
However, before I do, I also want to address the question of why it matters. And it is all to do with what I call the ‘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 organization succeed. Yet today, projects 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:
Does the proportion you calculate in 4 exceed the proportion in 3? If not, then your organization has a Governance Deficit.
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You almost certainly won’t be able to fix the problem across your whole organization. But you can look at 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:
Some senior people will want to engage with their role as Project Sponsor. They will have many reasons for doing this:
If you can understand the levers of human motivation, then you can use these to encourage engagement with sponsors who start out a little less keen.
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For a logically minded, analytical sponsor, your first stop will be to use 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:
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 to 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!
We are all motivated by a sense of doing things that matter… to us. Senior people should feel a sense of commitment to their organization. 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:
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 to 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 your 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.
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 delivery.
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:
This emphasizes 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!
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. And that will mean tough challenges 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 on what your expectations are of one another.
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 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.
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 your 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?
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 great their contribution has been.
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.
It is vital that you get your sponsor fully engaged. 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.
We have a lot of great articles about Project Sponsorship…
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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