A Sponsor’s Role in Project Success

Jan 21, 2022

According to PMI’s 2018 Pulse of the Profession Report one of the pivotal reasons that projects fail, is because of the lack or inadequacy of support from the project sponsors. This is the case for a staggering 26% of all organisations, and 41% of organisations with a low project management maturity. 

A project sponsor’s role is often underestimated and overlooked. Often the reins are handed over to the project manager once the project is given the go-ahead, and everybody seems to forget the importance of the actual sponsor, or so we think. However, the aforementioned figures clearly show that their role, and their engagement within that role, matters too much to the success of a project, to just let them fade into the background.

Articulating roles and responsibilities right at the beginning of the project is a must, so everyone understands the authority of the project sponsor. The best project sponsor is both engaged and active, and will be ‘joined at the hip’ to the project manager to ensure they are at all times aware of what is going on and that surprises are avoided. 

Transparency is important.  Back in the day the project sponsor would put a stake in the ground around dates and budget, based on nothing by a hunch without any rigour underpinning them.  The project manager was expected to take these wild arse guesses and turn them into reality.  More often than not, these optimistic whims proved wrong, sometimes with devastating consequences.  

Sadly, some of these sponsor behaviours are still seen.  The only way to deal with this is to defuse emotion with facts and be unequivocal about what is reality versus what is ‘hit and hope’.  There’s no point in saying six months into execution that ‘We always thought the plan was optimistic’.  Over optimism can almost always be called out during initiation, based on facts and supported by empirical data.  The project manager is not accountable for achievement of the business case benefits.  That sits squarely with the sponsor.  But they are responsible for clearly communicating to the sponsor the risks and assumptions identified by both internal and external subject matter experts.  The onus is then on the sponsor to act and to empower the project manager to do their job and present a realistic view.  The sponsor must then endorse that the plan is feasible. Burning cash and tying up scarce resources on an over optimistic plan or doomed project, after having been told that there is no chance of success or redemption, is simply reckless.  Don’t be that type of sponsor.  Get real, support your project manager and delivery team.

Ultimately for a project to succeed, the project sponsor must be aware of what is always going on in the project and be willing to help the project manager deliver the intended results.  If the plan doesn’t stack up, then the sponsor needs to recognise this and be the one to stop (or not even start) the project. 

After all, it’s your signature on the business case.