The Project Sponsor

For more than two decades, the traditional role of senior management, as far as projects were concerned, has been to function as project sponsors. The project sponsor usually comes from the executive levels and has the primary responsibility of maintaining executive-client contact. The sponsor ensures that the correct information from the contractor's organization is reaching executives in the customer's organization, that there is no filtering of information from the contractor to the customer, and that someone at the executive levels is making sure that the customer's money is being spent wisely. The project sponsor will normally transmit cost and deliverables information to the customer, whereas schedule and performance status data comes from the project manager.

In addition to executive-client contact, the sponsor also provides guidance on:

• Objective setting

• Priority setting

• Project organizational structure

• Project policies and procedures

• Project master planning

• Up-front planning

• Monitoring execution

• Conflict resolution

The role of the project sponsor takes on a different dimension based on which life-cycle phase the project is in. During the planning/initiation phase of a project, the sponsor normally functions in an active role, which includes such activities as:

• Assisting the project manager in establishing the correct objectives for the project

• Providing the project manager with information on the environmental/political factors that could influence the project's execution

• Establishing the priority for the project (either individually or through consultation with other executives) and informing the project manager of the established priority and the reason for the priority

• Providing guidance for the establishment of policies and procedures by which to govern the project

• Functioning as the executive-client contact point

During the initiation or kickoff phase of a project, the project sponsor must be actively involved in objective setting and priority setting. It is absolutely mandatory that the executives establish the priorities in both business and technical terms. Historically, objectives were mistakenly established in technical terms only. In this case, the project manager's definition of success was technical success (i.e.: Did it work?), irrespective of the cost or schedule. Today, objectives are defined in both business and technical terms.

During the execution phase of the project, the role of the executive sponsor is more passive than active. The sponsor will provide assistance to the project manager on an as-needed basis except for routine status briefings.

During the execution stage of a project, the sponsor must be selective in the problems that he or she wishes to help resolve. Trying to get involved in every problem will not only result in severe micromanagement, but will undermine the project manager's ability to get the job done. This could also detract from the amount of time the executive should spend performing his normal function.

The role of the sponsor is similar to that of a referee. Table 10-1 shows the working relationship between the project manager and the line managers in both mature and immature organizations. When conflicts or problems exist in the

TABLE 10-1. THE PROJECT-LINE INTERFACE Immature Organization

• Project manager is vested with power/ authority over the line managers.

• Project manager negotiates for best people.

• Project manager works directly with functional employees.

• Project manager has no input into employee performance evaluations.

• Leadership is project manager-centered.

Mature Organization

• Project and line managers share authority and power.

• Project manager negotiates for line manager's commitment.

• Project manager works through line managers.

• Project manager makes recommendations to the line managers.

• Leadership is team-centered.

project-line interface and cannot be resolved at that level, the sponsor might find it necessary to step in and provide assistance. Table 10-2 shows the mature and immature ways that a sponsor interfaces with the project.

It should be understood that the sponsor exists for everyone on the project, including the line managers and their employees. Project sponsors must maintain open-door policies, even though maintaining an open-door policy can have detri-

TABLE 10-2. THE EXECUTIVE INTERFACE Immature Organization

• Executive is actively involved in projects.

• Executive acts as the project champion.

• Executive questions the project manager's decisions.

• Priority shifting occurs frequently.

• Executive views project management as a necessary evil.

• There is very little project management support.

• Executive discourages bringing problems upstairs.

• Executive is not committed to project sponsorship.

• Executive support exists only during project startup.

• Executive encourages project decisions to be made.

• No procedures exist for assigning project sponsors.

• Executives seek perfection.

• Executive discourages use of a project charter.

• Executive is not involved in charter preparation.

Mature Organization

• Executive involvement is passive.

• Executive acts as the project sponsor.

• Executive trusts the project manager's decisions.

• Priority shifting is avoided.

• Executive views project management as beneficial.

• There is visible, ongoing support.

• Executive encourages bringing problems upstairs.

• Executive is committed to sponsorship (and ownership).

• Executive support exists on a continuous basis.

• Executive encourages business decisions to be made.

• Sponsorship assignment procedures are visible.

• Executives seek what is possible.

• Executive recognizes the importance of a charter.

• Executive takes responsibility for charter preparation.

■ Executive does not understand what goes into a

■ Executive understands the content of a charter.


• Executives do not believe that the project team is • Executives trust that performance is taking place. performing.

mental effects. First, employees may try to flood the sponsor with trivial items. Second, employees may feel that they can bypass levels of management and converse directly with the sponsor. The moral here is that employees must be encouraged to be careful about how many times and under what circumstances they "go to the well." The project manager also should not go to the project sponsor without a valid reason. Going to the sponsor too often may reflect unfavorably on the project manager's ability to manage or make decisions.

In addition to his/her normal functional job, the sponsor must be available to provide as needed assistance to the projects. Any given executive may find it necessary to act as a sponsor on several projects at the same time. Sponsorship can become a time-consuming effort, especially if problems occur. Therefore, executives are limited as to how many projects they can sponsor effectively at the same time.

As an organization matures in project management, executives begin to trust middle- and lower-level management to function as sponsors. There are several reasons for supporting this:

• Executives do not have time to function as sponsors on each and every project.

• Not all projects require sponsorship from the executive levels.

• Middle management is closer to where the work is being performed.

• Middle management is in a better position to provide advice on certain risks.

• Project personnel have easier access to middle management.

Sometimes executives refuse to act as project sponsors because of the nature of their job. Senior managers in large diversified corporations are extremely busy with strategic planning activities and often simply do not have the time to properly function as a sponsor as well. In such cases, sponsorship falls one level below senior management.

Figure 10-1 shows the major functions of a project sponsor. At the onset of a project, a senior committee meets to decide whether a given project should be deemed as priority or nonpriority. If the project is critical or strategic, then the committee may assign a senior manager as the sponsor, perhaps even a member of the committee. It is common practice for steering committee executives to function as sponsors for the projects that the steering committee oversees.

For projects that are routine, maintenance, or noncritical, a sponsor could be assigned from the middle-management levels. One organization that strongly prefers to have middle management assigned as sponsors cites the benefit of generating an atmosphere of management buy-in at the critical middle levels. Middle management is often criticized for not properly supporting or buying into a project, or even into project management as a methodology.

Not all projects need a project sponsor. Sponsorship is generally needed on those projects that require a multitude of resources or a large amount of integration between functional lines or that have the potential for disruptive conflicts or

Figure 10-1. Project sponsorship.

the need for strong customer communications. This last item requires further comment. Quite often customers wish to make sure that the contractor's project manager is spending funds prudently. Customers therefore feel pleased when an executive sponsor is identified, and when that sponsor's responsibility includes the supervision of the project manager's funding allocation.

It is common practice for companies that are heavily involved in competitive bidding to identify in their proposal not only the resume of the project manager, but the resume of the executive project sponsor as well. This may give the bidder a competitive advantage, all other things being equal. Customers are now convinced that they have a direct path of communications to executive management.

One such contractor identified the functions of the executive project sponsor as follows:

• Major participation in sales effort and contract negotiations

• Establishes and maintains top-level client relationships

• Assists project manager in getting the project underway (planning, procedures, staffing, etc.)

• Maintains current knowledge of major project activities (receives copies of major correspondence and reports, attends major client and project review meetings, visits project regularly, etc.)

• Handles major contractual matters

• Interprets company policy for the project manager

• Assists project manager in identifying and solving major problems

• Keeps general management and company management advised of major problems

Consider a project that is broken down into two life-cycle phases: planning and execution. (Actually, execution could be subdivided into several other phases.) For short-duration projects, say two years or less, it is advisable for the project sponsor to be the same individual for the entire project. For long-term projects of, say, five years or so, it is possible to have a different project sponsor for each life-cycle phase, but preferably from the same level of management. The sponsor does not have to come from the same line organization as the one where the majority of the work will be taking place. Some companies even go so far as demanding that the sponsor come from a line organization that has no vested interest in the project.

The project sponsor is actually a "big brother" or advisor for the project manager. Under no circumstances should the project sponsor try to function as the project manager as well. History has shown that this will do more harm than good. The project sponsor should assist the project manager in solving those problems that the project manager cannot resolve by himself. The sponsor generally works his magic in " mahogany row" behind closed doors, rather than interacting directly with the team members.

In one government organization, the project manager wanted to open up a new position on his project. The project manager already had a young woman identified to fill the position. Unfortunately, the size of the government project office was constrained by a unit-manning document that dictated the number of available positions.

The project manager obtained the assistance of an executive sponsor who, working with human resources and personnel management, created a new position within thirty days. Without executive sponsorship, the bureaucratic system creating a new position would have taken months. By that time, the project would have been over.

In a second case study, the president of a medium-sized manufacturing company, a subsidiary of a larger corporation, wanted to act as sponsor on a special project. The project manager decided to make full use of this high-ranking sponsor by assigning him certain critical functions. As part of the project's schedule, four months were allocated to obtain corporate approval for tooling dollars. The project manager "assigned" this task to the project sponsor, who reluctantly agreed to fly to corporate headquarters. He returned two days later with authorization for tooling. The company actually reduced project completion time by four months, thanks to the project sponsor.

Figure 10-2 represents a situation where there were two project sponsors for one project. Alpha Company received a $25 million prime contractor project from the Air Force and subcontracted out $2 million to Beta Company. The project manager in Alpha Company earned $95,000 per year and refused to communicate directly with the project manager of Beta Company because his salary was only $65,000 per year. After all, as one executive said, "Elephants don't communicate with mice." The Alpha Company project manager instead sought out someone at Beta in his own salary range to act as the project sponsor, and the burden fell on the director of engineering.

The Alpha Company project manager reported to an Air Force colonel. The Air Force colonel considered his counterpart in Beta Company to be the vice president and general manager. Here, power and title were more important than the $100,000 differential in their salaries. Thus, there was one project sponsor for the prime contractor and a second project sponsor for the customer.

In some industries, such as construction, the project sponsor is identified in the proposal, and thus everyone know who it is. Unfortunately, there are situations where the project sponsor is "hidden," and the project manager may not realize who it is, or know if the customer realizes who it is.

Figure 10-2. Multiple project sponsors.

Convincing executives of the necessity of project management is usually easier than getting them to provide ongoing, visible support by acting as a project sponsor. An unfortunate situation occurs when senior management becomes an invisible sponsor. This concept of invisible sponsorship occurs most frequently at the executive level and is referred to as absentee sponsorship.

There are several ways that invisible sponsorship can occur. The first is when the manager who is appointed as a sponsor refuses to act as a sponsor for fear that poor decisions or an unsuccessful project could have a negative impact on his or her career. In this case, invisibility is a result of fear.

The second type of invisible sponsorship results when an executive is appointed as a sponsor who really does not understand either sponsorship or project management. In this case, invisibility because of ignorance, the executive simply provides lip service to the sponsorship function.

The third way involves an executive who is already overburdened with a normal workload being asked to take on additional responsibilities by acting as a sponsor on several projects at one time. As a result, the executive simply does not have the time to perform meaningfully as a sponsor. Of course, this could be the result of the executive's lack of understanding of the additional workload of sponsorship when accepting the assignments.

The fourth way of creating an invisible sponsor occurs when the project manager refuses to keep the sponsor informed and involved. The sponsor may believe that everything is flowing smoothly and that he is not needed. This method creates further difficulties when problems occur because the sponsor may now feel helpless in assisting the project.

Some people contend that the best way for the project manager to work with an invisible sponsor is for the project manager to make the decision and then send a memo to the sponsor stating "This is the decision that I have made and, unless I hear back from you in the next 48 hours, I will assume that you agree with my decision."

The opposite extreme is the sponsor who micromanages. Sponsors who micromanage often do not understand the damage that they incur for the project manager. Some people contend that the best way for the project manager to handle this situation is to bury the sponsor with work in hopes that he will let go. Unfortunately this could lead to a detrimental situation for the project manager if it ends up reinforcing the sponsor's belief that what he is doing is correct.

The better alternative for handling a micromanaging sponsor is to ask for role clarification. The project manager should try working with the sponsor to define the roles of project manager and project sponsor more clearly. Sometimes executives are appointed as sponsors without understanding the sponsorship role. It is not uncommon for the project manager to end up educating the sponsor on role expectations.

The invisible sponsor and the overbearing sponsor are not as detrimental as the "can't-say-no" sponsor. In one company, the executive sponsor conducted executive-client communications on the golf course by playing golf with customer's sponsor. After every golf game, the executive sponsor would return with customer requests, which were actually scope changes that were considered as no-cost changes by the customer. When a sponsor continuously says "yes" to the customer, everyone in the contractor's organization eventually suffers.

Sometimes the existence of a sponsor can do more harm than good, especially if the sponsor focuses on the wrong objectives around which to make decisions. The following two remarks were made by two project managers at an appliance manufacturer:

• Projects here emphasize time measures: deadlines! We should emphasize milestones reached and quality. We say, "We'll get you a system by a deadline." When we should be saying, "We'll get you a good system."

• Upper management may not allow true project management to occur. Too many executives are "date-driven" rather than "requirements-driven." Original target dates should be for broad planning only. Specific target dates should be set utilizing the full concept of project management (i.e., available resources, separation of basic requirements from enhancements, technical and hardware constraints, unplanned activities, contingencies, etc.)

These comments illustrate the necessity of having a sponsor who understands project management rather than one who simply assists in decision-making. The goals and objectives of the sponsor must be aligned with the goals and objectives of the project, and they must be realistic. When such alignment occurs, it is common practice for the project manager to purposely treat the executive as an invisible sponsor.

If sponsorship is to exist at the executive levels, the sponsor must be visible and constantly informed concerning the project status. Absentee sponsorship may force critical decisions to be made at the wrong levels of management. If invisible sponsorship exists, then the project manager may have to act as his own sponsor.

Committee Sponsorship

For years companies have assigned a single individual as the sponsor for a project. Companies always ran the risk that the sponsor would show favoritism to his line group and suboptimal decision-making would occur. Recently, companies have begun looking at sponsorship by committee.

Committee sponsorship is becoming quite common in those organizations committed to concurrent engineering and shortening product development time. Committee membership is filled from the middle-management ranks and, at a minimum, should include one representative each from marketing, R&D, and operations. The idea behind this approach is that the committee will be able to make decisions in the best interest of the company more easily than a single individual could. This is particularly important for concurrent engineering projects where marketing, R&D, and production activities may be occurring at the same time.

Committee sponsorship also has its limitations. At the executive levels, it is almost impossible to find time blocks when senior managers can convene. Even at the middle levels of management, difficulties occur. It may be impossible for the committee members to serve on several committees at the same time. Therefore, the company may have to be selective (or set up some type of criteria) in deciding which projects require committee sponsorship and which do not. For a company with a large number of projects, committee sponsorship may not be a viable approach.

In time of crisis, project managers may need immediate access to their sponsors. If the sponsor is a committee, then how does the project manager get the committee to convene such that project delays will be minimal? This is further complicated by the fact that individual project sponsorship may carry with it more dedication than committee sponsorship.

Committee sponsorship has been shown to work well if one, and only one, member of the committee acts as the prime sponsor for a given project. One organization has a sponsorship committee of six members. Out of some 90 projects occurring at the same time, the committee sponsored 28 projects and each member served as the prime sponsor for some 5 projects. Each project manager's superior sponsored the remaining projects.

When to Seek Help

During status reporting, a project manager can wave either a red, yellow, or green flag. This is known as the ''traffic light" reporting system, thanks in part to color printers. For each element in the status report, the project manager will illuminate one of three lights according to the following criteria:

• Green light:Work is progressing as planned. Sponsor involvement is not necessary.

• Yellow light: A potential problem may exist. The sponsor is informed but no action by the sponsor is necessary at this time.

• Red light:A problem exists that may affect time, cost, scope, or quality. Sponsor involvement is necessary.

Yellow flags are warnings that should be resolved at the middle levels of management or lower. There is nothing wrong with the executive being informed of the problem, but he should not be expected to actively participate in the solution. Sponsors must be willing to say to a project manager, "This is your problem and you handle it."

If the project manager waves a red flag, then the sponsor will more than likely wish to be actively involved. Red flags generally indicate that a problem exists that can affect the time, cost, or performance constraints of the project and that an immediate decision must be made. The main function of the sponsor is to assist in making the best possible decision in a timely fashion. Executives who are unable to make timely decisions should not be allowed to function as project sponsors. This problem occurred in one company where the sponsor refused to make decisions and delays occurred.

Consider a situation where the project manager and one of the line managers are having a conflict over a critical technical issue affecting the project, and the problem is brought up to the sponsor for resolution. The sponsor must first make sure that all other avenues of resolution have been exhausted before getting actively involved. Second, the sponsor must solicit input from all conflicting parties as to the nature of the problem and alternatives being considered. Third, sponsors must understand their own capabilities as to their ability to make qualified decisions. If the sponsor is not qualified to make such a decision, then the sponsor must have the authority to convene the proper resources such that a timely decision can be made, and finally, the sponsor must see that a timely decision is made. If the sponsor did not exist, then the conflicting parties would have to climb the chain of command until a common superior could be found. Sponsors, therefore, eliminate wasted time and useless memos and minimize the number of people necessary to make a decision.

Both project sponsors and project managers should not encourage employees to come to them with problems unless the employees also bring with them alternatives and recommendations. Usually, employees will solve most of their own problems once they prepare alternatives and recommendations. As for those problems that must be brought upstairs, resolution is quickest when alternatives and recommendations are also available.

Good corporate cultures bring problems to the surface quickly for resolution. The quicker the potential problem is identified, the more opportunities are available for resolution. People must not be punished for bringing problems to the surface. Also, executives must not micromanage when they see a red or yellow light. They must allow the project manager sufficient time to manage the problem.

A current problem plaguing executives is who determines the color of the light. Consider the following problem: A department manager had planned to perform 1000 hours of work in a given time frame but has completed only 500 hours at the end of the period. According to the project manager's calculation, the project is behind schedule, and he would prefer to have the traffic light colored yellow or red. The line manager, however, feels that he still has enough "wiggle room" in his schedule and that his effort will still be completed within time and cost. Hence the line manager wants the traffic light colored green and does not see this as a problem as yet.

Coloring the light yellow or red may create a false impression that a problem exists and this may create unnecessary executive involvement. Although it is sometimes argumentative as to who colors the light, most executives seem to favor the line manager who has the responsibility for the deliverable. Line managers must provide an honest appraisal of the color of the light. Although the project manager has the final say on the color of traffic light, it is most often based upon the previous working relationship between the two and how well the project manager trusts the line manager's opinion.

As a final note, some companies use more than three colors to indicate project status. One company uses red, yellow and green lights as defined above, but also has an orange light. The orange light represents an activity that is still being performed after the target milestone date for the activity has passed.

The New Role of the Executive

As stated previously, as project management matures, executives decentralize project sponsorship to middle- and lower-level management. Senior management then takes on the new role of strategic planning for project management excellence. In this regard, executives take on the role of:

• Establishing a Center for Excellence in project management

• Establishing a project office or centralized project management function

• Creating a project management career path

• Creating a mentorship program for newly appointed project managers

• Creating an organization committed to benchmarking best practices in project management in other organizations

• Providing strategic information for risk management

This last bullet requires further comment. Because of the pressure placed upon the project manager for schedule compression, risk management could very well become the single most critical skill for project managers for the first decade of the twenty-first century. Executive sponsorship support for risk management will take on paramount importance. Executives will find it necessary to provide project management with strategic business intelligence, assist in risk identification, and evaluate or prioritize risk-handling options.

Managing Scope Creep

Technically oriented team members are motivated not only by meeting specifications, but also by exceeding them. Unfortunately, exceeding specifications can be quite costly. Project managers must monitor scope creep and develop plans for controlling scope changes.

But what if it is the project manager who initiates scope creep? The project sponsor must remain in close contact with the project manager on a periodic basis in addition to gate review meetings. Part of the periodic review process should cover the scope baseline changes. If senior management does not monitor the changes, then the changes may occur without authorization and significant cost increases will result, as shown in Situation 10-1 below:

Project Management Made Easy

Project Management Made Easy

What you need to know about… Project Management Made Easy! Project management consists of more than just a large building project and can encompass small projects as well. No matter what the size of your project, you need to have some sort of project management. How you manage your project has everything to do with its outcome.

Get My Free Ebook


  • Jorja
    Why do some executives refuse to function as project sponsors?
    1 year ago
  • Elias
    Can an executive be "forced” to function as a sponsor?
    1 year ago
  • Emma
    Why dosome executives refuse to function as a project sponser?
    2 months ago
  • stefan
    Why do some executives refuse to function as project sponsor?
    2 months ago
  • milen
    What is the role of the project client, sponsor, or customer at controlling project changes?
    1 month ago
  • kerttu paasilinna
    How project should have primary customer or sponser?
    21 hours ago

Post a comment