How to smash it as a project sponsor

How to smash it as a project sponsor

Colin Ellis provides a few tips

In recent blog post, I gave project managers some advice on how to get what they want from their senior managers.

Managing ‘upwards’ isn’t a skill that easy to teach. It takes trial and error, potentially some changes in a person’s personality and new approaches to communicating with people. The same is also true of being a good project sponsor.

Good governance is at the heart of every successful project and also the failed ones too. A 2011 report by the Victorian Ombusdman into ICT-enabled projects listed lack of leadership, accountability and governance as the key reasons for project failures.

The report said it was hard to identify who was accountable, or if there was a tendency to blame people who were previously involved in a project.

Leadership from the top is required if this is to change.' The same was also observed in a 2013 Standish Group report.

Performing the role of project sponsor is an assumed skill for every senior manager, but unless you've had prior experience, the role can come as somewhat as a shock to the system when you realise just how much is involved. This is particularly true if you've got more than one that you are sponsoring.

Having been on both sides of the fence I know what it takes to succeed as a sponsor and offer the following tips as a start point for those new to the role of project sponsor or for those wanting to further develop their skills.

Governance isn’t something you can delegate

Good project governance takes time. Lots of time. It's not something you can delegate, put on the back burner, prioritise out or pretend isn't really happening.

You need to commit to it early and be visible as the project figurehead. If you’re a CIO and decide to give one of your team the responsibility, then you need to make absolutely sure that they have the skills to do it.

‘Sharing the love’ isn’t a good thing to do for governance roles. The right person needs to be selected for the right governance role and this needs to be made clear to your team when discussing their strengths.

I even suggested recently that this could be someone who’s sole purpose it is to be a project sponsor and nothing else.

However you decide to do it, just make sure you give yourself plenty of time to be the best sponsor you can be for your project. Your career may depend on it.

Only fools rush in

As Elvis Presley once said, ‘wise men say, only fools rush in’ and projects are a great example of that. Mind you, he also said, 'if you bring a friend into your love affair, that's the end of your sweetheart', so he’s probably not the best role model to use.

Most projects fail before they get started because the project sponsor insists that the project manager skips the planning to proceed straight to delivery, usually because too much time has been spent trying to justify something.

If I had a dollar for every time I’d heard ‘we just need to get it started’, I'd have about $43. However, in order for a project to meet its targets, it needs a great plan.

One that details what will be delivered, who will be responsible, the time it will take and the engagement required to ensure that it's as good as it can be.

Far from skipping the planning stage, you need to insist that the project manager produces something they can hang their reputation on and that you're an active part of.

Being part of planning will ensure that you send the message that you're taking this seriously and if you can make the time, so can everyone else.

You can also start to gauge the level of influence, control and knowledge (of project management) that the project manager has. Treat it as an early warning siren.

Asking a project manager to short cut the planning process is like asking a dentist to pull a tooth without anaesthetic. They can do it, but there'll be a boat load of pain for all involved all the way through.

If you are the only person interested, you should stop it

Most projects start with the best of intentions. Returns on investment are discussed early and if you're really on to it, written down. Everyone is energised around finding a solution to a particular problem and have no preconceived ideas about what that solution should be.

Sometimes though, that enthusiasm quickly wanes and you find yourself all alone trying to motivate your peers and senior leadership team about the continuing need to solve the problem.

The problem won't have gone away, however it's likely that other projects or business as usual work have taken priority. Or else your peers just don’t care enough any more about the problem. It happens.

When it does happen, you need to decide early whether you're going to continue to try and build impetus or put it into mothballs. It's one or the other. Doing the project ‘to everyone’ hasn't worked since Y2K and it only worked then because we told them that planes were going to fall out of the sky.

If you wish to do the former, then it requires escalation and visible executive support. Project sponsors need support just as much as project managers do. If you don't have it, then you need to act.

You need to manage the project manager

Lots of projects fail because the project manager just isn't up to the job. I know...who knew? But behind every poor project manager is a project sponsor that failed to act. Managing the project manager is your job. Always will be. It's a relationship you need to develop early.

When it comes to selecting your project manager don't fall into the trap of solely looking at the types of projects they've managed before.

You need to assess their personality, collaboration approaches, problem solving skills and whether they know what it takes to get stuff done – that's what project management is all about, not what qualification they have.

Remember, it's your neck that's on the block if the project goes belly up, so you need the best person for the job and sometimes that comes at a cost.

When you’ve got the right person in place, you need to continue to build the relationship as well as the trust and get regular updates on how things are going.

Ensure they're on top of the things that could go wrong (risks), the things that are going wrong (issues) and the forward plan of action (schedule). A weekly half hour meeting should do the trick. Anything less than that and you run the risk of being too far removed to be able to see what is actually happening.

Big projects are a thing of the past – break them up

Remember those two year IT projects we used to have? I know it seems li....wait, what do you mean you still have a few? Those days are long gone. They were always over time, always over budget and always over staffed, usually with *cough* consultants *cough*.

One of the greatest things that the agile manifesto gave us (note: it's not new, it's been around for 13 years) is the principle ‘deliver working software frequently, from a couple of weeks to a couple of months, with a preference to the shorter timescale.’

This principle is not just applicable to software. It's applicable to everything. So break it up. Now, if you’re a Neil Sedaka fan – and who isn't frankly – you'll know that breaking up is hard to do.

But think of the benefits of this approach. You have greater control over what’s being delivered, a great degree of certainty around people, equipment, budgets and deliverables, and you can deliver value quickly to the customer.

Agile also aids understanding of a project and allow people to celebrate incremental success.

Of course, breaking projects up into stages is the job of the project manager and they need to have a number of approaches and techniques at their disposal to be able to do so.

Your project management office (if you have one) should provide this support, or else you need to ensure that when you recruit the project manager, you’ve asked this question. So in a long winded way, I guess I just wanted to prove Neil Sedaka wrong. Finally.

Being a project sponsor is hard work, but it’s even harder if you don't have the skills or knowledge to cope with the demands of the role.

The points above will hopefully give you an insight on where to focus your development and become the best sponsor you can be. If you can smash that, then greatness awaits.

Colin Ellis is a project management expert who believes that strong leadership aligned with sensible approaches are at the heart of successful project management and he is engaged by organisations who want just that. Find out more at his website or follow him on Twitter: @colindellis

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