Updated: Jan 14, 2019
A project without a sponsor is like a boat without an admiral. As the Project Manager, you are the captain and you are mandated with getting the project to destination and staying on course, and your crew is there to carry out all the tasks necessary to a successful journey. But ultimately it is the admiral who sets and owns the destination, and makes the big decisions when things steer off course.
Sponsors are instrumental to overall project success and each sponsor comes with his/her own personal and working style. Regardless of the type of sponsor you get to work with, stay clear of making any of the following assumptions.
Don’t assume they know what their role is
A sponsor needs to wear many hats and is simultaneously:
a customer: they own the needs, the benefits of fulfilling those needs, and they pay for it
a partner: they commit to project success and support the team through effective decision-making
a leader: they provide the vision and guidance, they design the end-goal within the big picture and they secure other people’s engagement and buy-in.
It’s not because someone is nominated as project sponsor that they know what it means in practice, and what they’re actually supposed to do. Find out early on about your project sponsor’s experience and expectations of their role, and as a Project Manager, remember you have an opportunity to help them understand that role and how to be good at it – see Elizabeth Harrin’s 10 secrets of being a good project sponsor.
Don’t assume you know what they want
Even if you are managing a project that has a great scope defined and clear requirements, don’t assume this is reflecting entirely what the sponsor wants. I have found that when I talk to a sponsor directly, there often other things that drive the change in the background as well as personal expectations and hopes for what the project will deliver.
Don’t assume you know how they want to be engaged
Often sponsors are senior people in the organisation; they’re busy and have limited time to get involved, and have to juggle many business-as-usual priorities. That being said, don’t assume that your sponsor doesn’t want to be involved in the details: some do, some don’t. Some will look for you to make their life easier and only engage them on “the big stuff”, whilst others will want to be involved in detailed discussions and handle all decisions. Rather than guessing at what level they should be engaged, ask them. You can always adapt as you go through the project, and it’s a good idea to check in with them regularly to see if the original engagement model still works once you are in the depth of the project.
Don’t assume that your sponsor is happy (or unhappy)
The relationship you have as a Project Manager with your sponsor is crucial, and it’s of course a two-way thing: you need mutual trust and respect, you need to support each other, and work in partnership so that as a team you do the right thing for the project. And as in all relationships, it can take time to build, it is fragile and needs nurturing. Sometimes you may hit it off straight-away, sometimes it can be hard work, and you may come into conflict at times. Be sensitive to that relationship and don’t take it for granted.
As far as project success criteria go, sponsor happiness is one you want to keep close to your heart. So if you’re not sure if your sponsor is happy or not, ask the question.