Exploring the Role of Project Sponsor

When organisations wish to establish an effective link between projects and the realisation of strategy, the responsibility of the project sponsor cannot be underestimated, writes Taryn van Olden

Project Management Diagram

The sponsor appears in different guises – executive sponsor, project champion, project lead – but the value they add defies semantics. According to Chandler and Thomas who wrote on this theme in their 2015 article in PMI’s Project Management Journal, the role of project sponsor over time has evolved from champion and financier to taking on responsibility for strategic alignment of projects and programmes and the development of the project managers who lead these activities.

At the recent Project Management South Africa (PMSA) Regional Conference in Cape Town in November 2015, a panel discussion featured seasoned project sponsors, responding to questions about optimising the relationship between project manager and project sponsor. This will be published by PMSA and PPO as a white paper. Until then, panellist Liz Dewing, who has many years’ experience as project sponsor offered these insights into two pertinent questions.

How do you see the role of the project sponsor at each stage of the project life-cycle?

The sponsor should perform a significant role throughout the life-cycle, as the champion of the business imperative behind the project in the face of the business and being on hand to explain why, according to the strategy, the project is being done, in other words to create and sustain the value of the delivery in the mind of the business. They should also ‘own’ the business case and be responsible to ensure that the value being delivered is what was expected and top of mind for the project manager.

At initiation / planning stage the project sponsor should agree the rules of engagement and consciously contractualise these in terms of the project governance, process, escalation procedure and boundaries of decision-making power, for example.

At execution / delivery stage, the project sponsor should afford access and support, ensure transparency and take decisive action in terms of reading (to be up-to-date on project activities), deciding and doing.

At project close / review the role of project sponsor relates to accountability for the benefits realisation, recognition of the project role-players and project outcomes, and learning in the context of the organisation and project management.

What are the most important items that must be negotiated and agreed by the project sponsor and project manager at project initiation?

First and foremost, the WHY! There must be alignment on where the value lies and what matters most, for example if this is quality, cost, time or a different measure of performance. It is also important to negotiate the level of flexibility that exists and the process to be followed for change control. Governance processes must also be discussed, including how much red tape is likely to be at play and why, and understanding the purpose that this serves. The sponsor should be in a position to support the project manager in ensuring adherence and buying in to the requirements.

Another factor for negotiation is the process: knowing what to expect in terms of the executive expectations and carving out the necessary time for this, both personally and in terms of lobbying others.

Negotiating around escalation – what gets escalated to whom, when and how, and when does one take it to the higher level—is important. There should also be agreement on how risk management will take place.

Delegation of authority and the boundaries of decision-making power of the project manager and project sponsor must be agreed, in particular because the project manager needs to know that someone who has their back when the going gets tough.

The last aspect for negotiation is the project manager’s access to the sponsor, ideally including regular and sufficient time during which to engage properly and discuss how things are going with full attention.

The relationship between project sponsor and project manager is ever-evolving, and there are global working groups, such as the Global Alliance for Project Performance Standards (GAPPS) developing documented standards for how project sponsors should perform…another example of how the project management fraternity is prioritising the link between project management and organisational strategy.

Amongst other project roles, Liz Dewing has spent more than a decade in divisions of Old Mutual South Africa responsible for strategic project delivery. She now runs a consultancy – Magnetic North – and specialises in speech writing, public speaking skills development, and independent facilitation.

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