September 9, 2015

Don’t Accept an Invisible Project Sponsor!

In this brief article we will be discussing the importance of the role of the project’s sponsor.  

Let’s be clear, this is really aimed at Project Managers who are undertaking major activities with larger budgets and typically in larger organizations.

The harsh reality of life

As a Project Manager, you can be sure that all of the key decision makers and influencers in the sponsoring organization are 100% committed to your project’s eventual success. All you have do therefore is to deploy your considerable technical expertise in “making it so”

If you believe the above assertion, then you’re probably also gazing up into the sky right now and looking for those flying pigs!

It’s painful for some relatively new Senior Project Managers to accept but the harsh reality is that there is an excellent chance that many senior people in the organization are most certainly against (or indifferent to) your project’s objectives.  

There may be many reasons why that’s the case.

Perhaps the successful outcome will prejudice their existing role or domain in the organization.  Possibly they simply don’t care about your objectives but resent the money being spent on your project rather than one of their own.  

Whatever the cause, you can be sure that you will encounter powerful people in the company who are going to get in the way of what you’re trying to achieve.  

Some may manifest that hostility covertly by being supportive in public while quietly making life extremely difficult for you behind the scenes.  Others may do so more overtly, meaning that every single required decision or activity, such as resource allocation, becomes controversial and subject to internal debate and delay.

Don’t underestimate the power of senior people in a company, who are not blown away with enthusiasm for you and your project, to cause mayhem in terms of your timetable and success criteria – even while ostensibly supporting what you’re doing.  

So, what can the Project Manager do in such circumstances?

Lost in the wilderness

Conventional project management training majors strongly on things such as your powers of persuasion and engagement. The idea is that through your sheer strength of personality and titanic intellect, you’ll be able to convince the “stoppers".

Of course, all those virtues are incredibly important but if they are the only weapon in your armory then in some cases be prepared to spend a lot of time banging your head on a brick wall.

The fact of the matter is that if your project directly conflicts with the objectives or aspirations of some of the key people in the organization, then no amount of networking, charm, and after-work drinking is going to convince them to enthusiastically support you.

This syndrome is well known in many organizations.  It usually results in Project Managers spending hugely disproportionate amounts of their time engaged in what can only be described as “political maneuvering” and wandering the corridors of power desperately trying to find friends and allies.  

It is, in my experience, one of the major reasons why projects fail or become hopelessly bogged down.

The Project Sponsor as a snow plough

Conventional project management methodologies typically stress the role of the Project Steering Group or its equivalent.  

The idea in this context is that you get the key players in the organization together for periodic governance reviews. In that forum, any senior level malcontents who are throwing up obstacles to your progress are persuaded by peer pressure to support what you’re doing.

Nobody is disputing the importance of an executive steering group but keep in mind that difficult individuals at these levels in organizations are adept at paying lip-service to “we’re all in this together” at such meetings. Then, they’ll often immediately recommence their old obstructive behaviors outside of them.

In terms of clearing political roadblocks, many executive steering groups are ineffective at decision making and can easily degenerate into a simple project status reporting and talking shop.

This is why the role of a heavyweight executive Project Sponsor is critical. The role needs to be filled by an individual with real political power in the organization and one who has been empowered by the CEO or COO to smash through any roadblocks put in the way of your project.

Your job is to use your technical skills and people management expertise to deliver your project – not to spend significant amounts of your time trying to assail impregnable political fortresses that are defended way above your pay grade.  

Conviction and persuasion are certainly important but ultimately every organization may need to accept that the political roadblock needs to be pushed aside.  Most Project Managers won’t have that clout and it needs an effective Project Sponsor to take on that role.

Don’t leave home without one

No Project Sponsor will welcome a Project Manager bringing every single daily gripe and problem to their desk. Senior Project Managers are typically very highly paid and they’re expected to be problem solvers – not whiners. Even so, you’ll have your limitations in terms of what you can do about some of the political dimensions touched on above and that’s where the Sponsor is required.

Sadly, one of the commonest mobilization failures of major projects is that they kick off without having an appropriately empowered and enthusiastic Project Sponsor in place. Keep in mind also that a lightweight sponsor, often allocated by organizations because the individual concerned is currently ‘spare’ or even ‘on their way out’, may simply prove to be ineffective in the longer term.    

As a Senior Project Manager, this should be a red line for you.  Too many Project Managers turn into rather sad and lonely characters trying to deliver a project that has become hopelessly bogged down in internal political in-fighting of a type they simply do not have the power to resolve.

Make sure that you don’t become one such and insist upon having that dynamic and heavyweight Project Sponsor in place from day one.

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