Early on in just about every project, the project sponsor is actively engaged and working hands-on with the project team as the initiative is scoped and planned. Quite frankly, they should be! The project usually represents an idea or concept that the sponsor has been looking to execute upon for some time. Ostensibly, that’s why they are the sponsor. To get to this point of project initiation, the sponsor has likely had to steer his or her idea through round after round of strategic alignment workshops, budget negotiations and portfolio prioritization reviews. He/She has a vested interested in the successful execution of the project, and are going to be actively involved to make sure it gets off on the right foot. In fact, as a Project Manager, you’ll likely be sick of the sponsor before you get to the Planning Phase because they won’t leave you alone to get the work done!
Before we move on, let’s ground ourselves in what a “Project Sponsor” actually is…or should be. From the Project Management Institute’s Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK), 5th Edition, 2013,
A sponsor is the person or group who provides resources and support for the project and is accountable for enabling success. The sponsor may be external or internal to the project manager’s organization. From initial conception through project closure, the sponsor promotes the project. This includes serving as a spokesperson to higher levels of management to gather support thorughout the organization and promoting the benefits the project brings. The sponsor leads the project through the initiating processes until formally authorized, and plays a significant role in the development of the initial scope and charter. For issues that are beyond the control of the Project Manager, the sponsor serves as an escalation path. The sponsor may also be involved in other important issues such as authorizing changes in scope, phase-end reviews, and go/no go decisions when risks are particularly high. The sponsor also ensures a smooth transfer of the project’s deliverables into the business of the requesting organization after project closure.
But at some point during the project, and it happens in more projects than most are willing to admit, the sponsor seems to disappear. Sometimes it’s because the project is running so smoothly, the sponsor feels like there’s nothing to do. Other times, it’s because the project is running so poorly, the sponsor wants to distance him/herself from becoming part of the collateral damage. Most of time, however, it’s just “out of sight, out of mind.” Once the sponsor goes through all of the hard work needed to get the project approved and launched, there is a natural tendency to lose intensity of interest. Most Project Managers, happy to be free of the daily oversight (maybe perceived as micromanagement), willingly allow the sponsor to drift away from being so hands-on in the project as the planning and execution activities get underway. But this is very dangerous!
What happens if you lose a key resource? What happens when the vendor that was selected doesn’t deliver as planned? What happens when executive leadership starts trimming away at the project budget at each phase gate? What happens when questions come up on how to integrate the project’s deliverables into the line of business? That’s right, the Project Manager is on his/her own and no matter where they look, there is no ownership for the effort. So what are your options if this happens to you?
First, contact the sponsor and share your concerns about their lack of engagement. We all get overloaded sometimes, and that may just be the case with your project. Or, the sponsor may have such a comfort level on the project that they don’t want to get in your way. In any event, talk it over and decide how to move forward.
Second, if you can’t get the sponsor to re-engage through direct conversation, they you need to call out the situation as an issue and risk. Log the details of your attempts to resolve and list the risks associated with a lack of direct sponsor support and engagement. Alert your leadership team that you are working on the issue.
Third, advise the project leadership team and approval/governance bodies that you may need to stop the project until the issue of sponsorship is resolved. Many times, the threat to go “Full Stop” on a project or to have the issue escalated up the chain of command will jolt the sponsor back into conversation.
Fourth, and really your last line of defense, is to request that the project be cancelled. Projects that do not have sponsorship should not proceed. If no one is willing to own the effort, accept the deliverables at the end, secure funding and key team members, assist with problems and issues or support the Project Manager, the project is on a one-way path to failure and should be killed before it can consume additional resources.
If you are lucky enough to have an actively engaged sponsor, who wants to directly participate in each step of the project, be thankful! Take extra care of that sponsor. Overcommunicate. Form a true partnership. Become a tight-knit team. You may still have issues, problems and challenges on the project, but at least you’ll have an active partner and champion for resolving them and exponentially increase the odds of eventually achieving a successful project delivery!