The success-critical role of a project sponsor

When asked which factors are important for the success of a project, the roles of the project manager and the team members are often listed above all. However, one role is often neglected, namely that of the project sponsor. There is a great number of project management standards, but only a few that take care of project sponsors. A guidance document “Building Sponsors”, published by the Association for Project Management (APM), identifies four core levels of sponsorship, noting that not every project has all four levels operating separately and that a sponsor may operate at multiple levels at the same time. They are called “Strategic Sponsor”, “Senior Sponsor”, “Sponsor´s Agent” and “Internal Sponsor”.

Key functions of a sponsor include but are not limited to the following:

  • Providing assurance to the board (or equivalent) that their investment continues to be sound.
  • Championing the project with key stakeholders.
  • Owning the business case.
  • Ensuring that appropriate governance exists.
  • Ensuring strategic alignment.
  • Focusing on benefits.
  • Driving key decision making.

Another Guide of APM, the Governance Specific Interest Group´s guidance document titled ”Sponsoring Change“ (2nd Edition) highlights the decision-making responsibilities, including but not limited to the following:

  • the purpose of the project
  • the project objectives
  • the top-level contingency provisions
  • the project´s priority relative to other projects owned by the organisation
  • who is appointed to the position of project manager or whether they should continue in the role
  • the deployment of resources not managed directly by the project manager and
  • whether or not the project should be started, proceed to the next stage or be discontinued

The Guiding Framework for Project Sponsors of the Global Alliance for the Project Professions, published in 2015 and updated in 2017, defines the role of a sponsor as follows: “The sponsor is an individual who may be called funder, owner, client, senior responsible owner. The person appointed as a sponsor typically has a permanent position within the organisation. The role of project sponsor is generally considered an additional, part time role.”

The organisation’s governance practices should make it clear who the sponsor is, how the sponsor is selected, their accountabilities, and responsibilities as well as the relationships between the sponsor and the project manager and between the project and the business. These practices should ensure that the sponsor has authority, credibility, and / or position necessary to perform the role. The sponsor may be appointed from and at any management level within the organisation that is applicable for the type of project being sponsored.

In a previous blogpost I have listed several difficulties in practice:

  • For many projects the role of a sponsor is not defined. This creates many difficulties for the project manager, trying to find someone in the organisation to answer the many questions he or she has. It starts with the clarifications of the objectives, the business case and the constraints of the projects. Later it continues with important decisions, e.g. change requests and additional resource requirements. Finally, the sponsor needs to accept the deliverables and sign-off the project. Therefore, the role of a project sponsor from the initiation throughout the end of a project should be clearly defined and communicated.
  • Power and influence of a project sponsor is key for supporting projects in a complex and dynamic context. The lower a project sponsor is positioned in the hierarchy, the more it is difficult to succeed in decision-making processes and discussions. Thus, a project sponsor should be positioned as high as possible in an organisation and make his or her influence available to the project manager. It does not mean pushing things through, but at least balancing the (often) uneven distribution of power between line and project functions.
  • Project sponsors are NOT another management level of the project, they need to delegate as much authority to the project team as possible. A project sponsor sets the frame for the project, gives space to manoeuvre and supports the project team as much as possible. A project sponsor is a Governance function, which sets the scene, supports the project manager but does NOT intervene too much into the project. It is certainly a balancing act. A sponsor needs to demonstrate excellent leadership skills, acting as a coach, mentor or champion, rather than a control freak. However, the sponsor is typically accountable for the business case and the benefits realisation, and thus needs to ensure the outcomes fit to the expectations of the organisation.
  • The sponsor might lack the strategic vision of the project and only guides from a specific point of view. However, projects are in support of realizing strategic objectives. A project sponsor is responsible for the alignment of the project objectives with the strategic objectives. Consequently, a sponsor needs to be competent from a strategic viewpoint. This is critical, as in many cases projects are performed that do not really support the vision, mission and strategy of the organisation.
  • The relationship between sponsors, the PMO, the Portfolio Manager and a steering committee is often ambiguous. A project sponsor is typically introduced by a (multi-project) steering committee and may be part of that committee. A project sponsor may define a project-specific steering committee with people influencing the project from a line or other function. The Portfolio Manager and the PMO should support the sponsor with data and advise.

Thus, in governance for projects, programs, and portfolios, top management should emphasize that the role of a sponsor is competently filled and performed. If necessary, the role holders should be trained or given targeted support during the course of a project. In my view, this applies to large, medium-sized and smaller companies. The greater the number and importance of projects in the company, the more important – in addition to the role of the project manager – the role of the project sponsor will be

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Author: Reinhard Wagner, CEO of Tiba Management Consulting

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