Much of the dialog and content of project management improvement is focused on increased knowledge, better processes and the right tools for the project manager. Project by project however, there is another, oft-overlooked element – the project sponsor. This leadership role can, quite simply, make or break a project. If you have ever had experience of working with a great sponsor and separately with a poor sponsor, you’ll know what I’m talking about.
Good Behavior for Smoother Projects
The reality is that, much like many project managers, sponsors are frequently unprepared for their role. Yet the quality of sponsorship can make all the difference to a project and its outcomes. Adhering to the principles below can help to steer a smooth course:
Align the Team
Describe the purpose of the project and its context. Articulate the rationale and summarize the business case. Express the vision of what will be different after the project, what the benefits are and how any stakeholder concerns have been addressed. Unify the team around a common goal and avoid being fluffy on what you want (and don’t want). Focus the team on the tactical objectives and be clear about the boundaries – what will and will not be covered. Not getting sufficiently involved and specific up front almost guarantees excessive involvement later on in resolving issues and fixing problems.
Validate the Plan
It’s the responsibility of the sponsor to approve the plan for execution. This means knowing what a good plan looks like versus a bad plan(i.e. don’t sign anything unless you know what you’re signing). Have you reviewed the WBS with the project manager? Is it sufficiently detailed? Does it cover all required aspects of scope? How confident are the team in satisfying the objectives? How were estimates derived? Have all resources and their managers agreed to the schedule? If in doubt on how to validate, seek input from an experienced and trusted project manager or from the PMO.
An effective sponsor is THE champion for the project. This means being accessible and available, sticking to scheduled meetings, touching base with the team regularly – even if it’s a working lunch, keeping the project visible with senior stakeholders and advocating the interests of the project in management forums. Clearly explain the rationale for tough decisions that might be misinterpreted or risk alienating the team – (business considerations sometimes outweigh pure project interests). Showing real commitment and a passion for executing the project well, in person, week in, week out – this can be a real energizing force for the team.
Inspect what You Expect
The sponsor should be an advocate for effective project management. Insist that the project team adheres to processes and provides the data that you ask for. This is especially important where the organization’s maturity in project management is still low and new processes are being introduced. Review process issues, for example in planning, technical lifecycles, tracking and reporting. Determine if anything is not working and take action to resolve it. Ensure information is timely and accurate. Poor decisions are a common consequence of bad data resulting from inadequate (or, sometimes, too much) process.
Ask the Right Questions
Ultimately the project needs to deliver results – it’s the job of the sponsor to ensure the project is not only on track to deliver those results but also to verify those results are still relevant and worthwhile. This requires courage to ask tough questions and take adaptive action – possibly changing course, re-planning or even terminating the project. It also means proactively exploring options and alternatives with the project manager and understanding both the business and tactical impact of changes.
Define Success and Measure It
Lay out what ‘success’ will mean for the project right from the outset. What are the ways in which the project can be judged a triumph rather than a failure? Consider who will benefit and how. What does success mean from a people standpoint? A deliverable standpoint? A process perspective? What about for the team? The organization? Use each review meeting as an opportunity to gauge how well the project is tracking to these measures – not just at the end.
As the overall project leader, the sponsor must be in touch with the team’s achievements, especially when the going gets tough – which is no time to be remote. Be interested in progress, recognize both individual and team contributions and express thanks for extraordinary commitment and significant accomplishments, openly and publically. Putting in extra hours is common enough on projects but if your sponsor is an inspirational leader, genuinely empathetic and rewards high performance, it’s a whole lot less painful for the team to go the extra mile.