Project Success – The Role of a Project Sponsor

Blog 21-05-2021

Introduction

An effective sponsor is critical to the successful delivery of a project. Many surveys cite ineffective sponsorship as one of the top causes of project failure. This article explains the role of the project sponsor and explains steps to ensure your sponsor is effective.

Overview of Project Sponsor’s Role

The Sponsor is typically a senior executive who is accountable for the outcomes of the project being delivered to the organisation. He or she has the vision and the understanding of what success looks like in terms of a successful delivery of a project or programme.

The sponsor will often be the originator or approver of a project idea. They will be responsible for formulating the business case for the potential project or programme. The sponsor would typically lead the presentation of the business case to the governance committee that is in place to approve projects.

What is often not understood is that the project sponsor is accountable for the expected outcomes and benefits of the project or programme. Some organisations reinforce this message by assuming the project will deliver its benefits and these assumptions are then used to amend the budget of the sponsor. For example, if a sponsor maintains that this new project will help reduce costs by £500k in the next financial year, the sponsor’s budget is reduced by this amount; this tends to focus the sponsor’s mind on a realistic business case. It also ensures that the sponsor is actively involved in the project.

Change Champion

The sponsor is the champion of the project or programme. He or she has a vested interest in its success. However, the sponsor must also check the ongoing viability of the project or programme at various stage gates or intervals. Despite being the change champion, the sponsor must also recognise when the project or programme is no longer justifiable if the business case becomes unviable. This may happen as more information on the costs, risks and benefits are understood as the project progresses.

Supporting the Project Manager

The sponsor needs to challenge the project manager as to the progress, risks, issues, cost, and expected benefits. This needs to be a ‘healthy challenge’. However, running a project or programme successfully can be a difficult undertaking and the sponsor needs to be supportive of the project or programme manager when difficulties arise.

Unblocking Blockers!

During any project, hurdles and uncertainties will occur. Some of these obstacles may not be within the project manager’s ability to overcome. This may be due to a lack of seniority or lack of influence in another part of the organisation. The project may encounter some barriers to change in a different department and the sponsor needs to get involved to overcome these barriers.

The project may, for example, require more resources to deliver the project’s outcomes. Unlocking blockers and allocating more resources are key parts of a sponsor’s role.

 

Summary of a Sponsor’s Accountabilities

There are a number of aspects to a sponsor’s role and we have summarised these in the table below:

Role Specification

Description
  • The sponsor is the person who has most to gain from the successful delivery of the project/programme
Purpose
  • To ensure that the programme or project delivers the expected outcomes
  • To own the overall business change resulting from the delivery of the project or programme
Overall Responsibilities
  • To deliver the outcomes
  • To influence
  • To un-block blockers

 

Core Behaviours
  • Strong Decision Maker
  • Astute Politician
  • Leadership Skills
  • People Influencer
  • Strong Inter-personal Skills

 

Responsible for:
  • Successful Delivery of the programme/project and the organisational change
  • Managing the ongoing business case
  • Ensuring outcomes of the project and programme are communicated
  • Ensuring benefits and outcomes are delivered
  • Confirming on-going viability of project or programme
  • Chairing the Steering Group
  • Actively manage the benefits delivery
  • Support the project/programme manager
Experience / Core Competencies
  • A senior manager or Director preferably a C- Level
  • Knowledge of risk management
  • Knowledge of financial control
  • Understanding of organisation governance structures
  • Understanding of business change management

 

 

Sponsor Problems!

In our experience, the biggest problem with a sponsor is the fact that the sponsor may not understand his or her role as a sponsor. This is often the case when it is the first time that this individual is performing the sponsor’s role.

This can lead to the situation of an ineffective or absent sponsor with corresponding risks to the successful delivery of the project or programme.

Many organisations have no training for new sponsors. As the sponsor is a senior individual, it is assumed that the sponsor knows what he or she should be doing as regards sponsorship. However, managing an operational department is very different from sponsoring a project or programme.

If a project or programme manager is in the position where the sponsor is new, then the project/programme manager should run an awareness or training session to explain the role of the sponsor and what is expected of him /her.

Conclusion

The sponsor is a critical role in any initiative. It is imperative that a strong and active sponsor is in place for every project or programme. If not, then the risk of a successful project or programme delivery has just increased!

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