Sponsors and Project Risk

Feb 27, 2020

Project sponsors deal with a lot. Balancing high pressure project governance with a day job usually means time is of the essence. Too many times sponsors under this sort of pressure miss the vital signs, wanting to believe their cup is half full and not intervening until it’s too late.

Reading the leaves

So how can an under the pump sponsor spot the early warnings? Over the years we’ve created a short-hand for this – we call it Reading The Tea Leaves. Reading The Tea Leaves is about smart sponsorship, looking for the first shoots of trouble and moving quickly to flush out the problem before it can take root. The five big signs of a project in trouble when Reading The Tea Leaves are:

1.) Schedule anomalies. Projects and project management are not precise sciences. If your PM’s schedule has zero contingency or the resource is oversubscribed, then you’re already in trouble. Contingency is your friend, offering coverage for the unknowns. A schedule with no contingency may not be guaranteed to fail… but it’s not one we’d sign up to.    

2.) Spend alignment. Perfectly aligned forecasts to budget might look good at first glance. But think about it… you now have no room for unexpected issues. Smart personal budgeting accounts for unexpected overseas weddings, car breakdowns, or even illness. Your PM should do the same, reducing risk to business case benefits by building fat into their plan. By setting expectations around budget contingency thresholds at the start of the project, sponsors and PMs go a long way to avoiding this pitfall.

3.) Contract reliance. If your PM is reaching for the vendor contract it means things are bad. You’ve already lost the battle and likely the war. A project is only as good as its people and the culture they create. If there’s a disagreement, the letter of the agreement is probably not the smartest route to solution, likely to inflame tension and reduce engaged discussion. Remember, EQ will always trump IQ –  a PM capable of walking in the vendor’s shoes will always deliver a more collaborative execution and quality outcome.

4.) The death march. A team being worked into the ground by their PM serves no-one. It’s easy to see the warnings… high levels of illness, resource turnover, balls being dropped by normally safe hands…if there’s too much work for the size of the team or budget, then that’s a problem for the sponsor. And you can’t just put your head in the sand – after all it’s your signature on the business case. 

5.) The heroic PM. The final Read The Tea Leaves behaviour can be a tougher one for sponsors to see. After all, a PM willing to take on more responsibility, insisting “they’ve got this”, and keeping problems from the sponsor’s eyes can be useful. But it’s a fine line between catching issues, solving problems, and just plain biting off more than you can chew. It’s worth remembering the ultimate destination of martyrdom is death… or marginally less dramatic in project management, being kicked off the project. A sponsor needs to be alert to this, and save their PM from this fate.

Act fast for project recovery

If you recognise any of these behaviours next time you read your project’s tea leaves, it’s your responsibility to act. Facing reality is tough. Admitting you’ve got a problem and a big one at that, is the hardest thing to do. 

Yet it’s the first and most important step on the road to recovery. As the sponsor of a project that’s gone off the rails, it’s your duty to take action. And that means appointing a recovery manager as a matter of urgency.