A project sponsor is probably the most overlooked role within the context of a project, and yet, this is the person that can play a key role in ensuring project success.
In some organizations, projects don’t have a defined sponsor. In others, it’s not clear who the sponsor is and, as a result, the project leader’s manager, or multiple senior executives might step in to play this role with none of them truly accountable for the outcomes. And even when a project sponsor is identified, he is often very busy juggling multiple priorities. Such sponsors may ‘give the green light’ to start the project and interfere only when a crisis arises. This reactive approach can cause unnecessary project hurdles, if not failures.
Placing focus on the role of the sponsor and developing leaders who can fulfill the role effectively is a tremendous benefit to the organization and its portfolio of work. Let’s talk about what an effective project sponsor can do for an organization.
Ensure the Project Is Aligned with Organizational Priorities
A common mistake organizations make is to follow the lead of the customer (internal or external), without first looking at their priorities to see if a particular project is a good fit for the organization at this point in time. The project sponsor has an organizational bird’s-eye view that allows him to look at the current state of the organization, the market, and the opportunity the project may be responding to. He can pose questions, such as “Is this where we need and want to go?” and “If so, how can we get there successfully?”. A sponsor and other senior leaders can answer these questions in broad strokes and then document this thought process in the Project Charter.
The Project Charter not only defines a project at its starting point but also helps the organization determine whether or not it’s worthwhile to go ahead with the project. The sponsor, being a senior leader, is well familiar with the organizational strategy, and is thus in the best position to make sure that the project he is sponsoring is in line with the overall direction the organization is taking.
Serve as the Project’s Advocate
Once the project is a “go”, many sponsors step away. But it pays off for a sponsor to stay involved with the project throughout its lifecycle. The sponsor should remain aware of the project’s progress, its interim accomplishments, and ongoing challenges. And his bird’s-eye view of the organization will continue to be helpful. The sponsor can remove obstacles the project team runs into at every project phase. Short on resources? The sponsor can work with resource area leaders to locate and reallocate resources. Conflict? The sponsor can use his big-picture perspective to help find a good solution. Most importantly, the sponsor remains invested in the project success and serves as the project’s tireless advocate inside and outside the organization.
Lead Project System Improvements Across the Organization
Continuous learning and improvement are necessary for organizational success. Every project provides an opportunity to learn what’s working and what’s not working. Project leaders and teams learn all the time, and when that knowledge is captured in a structured way, it can be applied across the organization in the future. As a senior leader who understands what happens at the project level, the project sponsor has the influence to take that knowledge to the organizational level and work with other senior leaders to identify improvements that will benefit the organization as a whole. These improvements can become new initiatives, each of which will also have a project sponsor to ensure success.
When a project sponsor is effective, the project success rate improves, the portfolio of work moves forward, and the organization has the opportunity to become more effective overall. So, don’t forget the project sponsor!