Managing Waffling Project Sponsors

There may be a variety of reasons why project sponsors decide they are no longer committed to the project:

■ Perhaps a new CEO has come on board, and the whole strategic nature of the company has already been changed or is up for grabs.

■ Perhaps personality shortcomings have led the sponsor to believe that there are problems on the team. Maybe there' s been some heavy rumor-mill activity regarding the project and the sponsor has picked up on the rumors, subsequently putting a checkmark in her mind about it.

■ It could also be that you have team members who came from a different part of the company, one that the sponsor has been having quite a bit of difficulty with lately—so there ' s an element of "enemy in the camp" thinking going on. Sounds immature, but it happens.

■ The project sponsor may simply be going through personal problems and not have the emotional time needed to give to the project at this point in time. He may be looking for a new job or have problems at home. Who knows?

A nearly infinite variety of components can go into why a person' s support for a project becomes lackluster. How can you mitigate this difficulty?

Identify the source of the doubts Begin by being a truth-teller. Sit down with the sponsor and get it out on the table. "Sue, lately I' ve really noticed that your interest in and support of my project has gone downhill. Here are the reasons why I say this: Reason, reason, reason, reason. I' m interested in finding out whether you have issues with the project, and how I can work with you to correct them." Be prepared for one of two responses:

■ The truth: Sue tells you, in more or less exact terms, what she' s worried about.

■ The gloss-over: Sue tells you that there' s nothing wrong... really.

Use carefully guarded communication Your communications skills need to be at their very height as you go through this process. Your last desire is to further reduce this person' s support, so you need to carefully pick your words and describe situations in such a way that you ' re not placing blame on them, but you' re describing ways in which you' ve seen what you can only characterize as a reduced lack of enthusiasm about the project. Try to keep personalities out of it, though there may very well be personalities at the heart of it.

Tip It' s not altogether unreasonable to anticipate that you are the reason that one or more sponsors have become less excited. Perhaps they think that you' re not communicating enough, that you' re not the right PM for the job, or that you' re not handling task assignments well. Whatever. But be prepared for that eventuality as well—and be mature enough to deal with it if it comes. The turnover of PMs, especially in high-level projects, is higher than one might imagine. Involve allies and influences What if your sponsor can 't really pinpoint any reason for his lack of enthusiasm—but it' s distinctly there, and continues, even after you have your discovery meeting? The next step would be to try to get cohorts and other influences to find out what truly is wrong. Perhaps if this person won't tell you what ' s up, he ' l l tell another who can, in turn, relay the information to you.

Talk to the stakeholders Be careful here—the sponsor may have some political allies in the stakeholder group. Consulting with the stakeholders might a be a good way to find out what their take is on the sponsor s diminished enthusiasm. You might be able to get them to revitalize the sponsor, or (if stakeholder belief in the project is strong enough) they might simply appoint a different sponsor.

If the difficulty remains, the project will wane to the point where you have to make a decision about whether to recommend killing it or get a new executive sponsor. There' s this truth: A project that ' s dying on the vine must have something done with it. Either kill it and put it out of its misery, or prune away the problem spots and go on to finish it. But the project cannot hang out there as a shriveled-up raisin if it was at one time destined to be part of a bottle of fine Zinfandel.

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