Overcoming Sponsorship that Isn’t There

By Bob McGannon, PMP

Project managers often are forced to deliver their projects with a distinct shortage of good sponsorship decisions and support due to a lack of time, lack of knowledge or a lack of focus on the part of senior stakeholders. Though few projects will genuinely deliver what is promised without some degree of sponsorship, the astute project manager can take some actions to a) recognise these shortcomings and b) take appropriate action to overcome them. These approaches require a small dose of ‘being bold’ and require a bit of diligent ‘homework’. So, see if you recognise any of these instances where your sponsorship ‘isn’t present:’

  • Lack of knowledge by the sponsor of what they are supposed to do

The best project managers are predictable – they set their direction, communicate that direction and follow it, alerting stakeholders of changes along the way. This degree of direction is only effective if accompanied with sufficient processes that serve as enablers of their prescribed direction. A fundamental piece of that process set consists of how the project manager interacts with key stakeholders – not the least of which is the sponsor. Every project needs to have sufficient processes in place for involving, informing and – in some cases – warning the sponsor. Sponsors are different – they have differing amounts of time, varying trust in the project manager and the team, and preferences for the level of detail contained in the information they receive. In short, a process needs to be discussed and agreed upon with the sponsor. The uneducated sponsor will then become acquainted with the managerial needs of the project and its management team. That process discussion should cover the following topics:

    • Access to funding for the project
    • Control and decision making for any business process to be changed as a result of the project
    • Ability to secure and prioritise resources
    • Compliance and measurement of performance standards after changes are implemented by the project
    • Support and assistance with the management of key stakeholders

Through these process discussions, the sponsor’s education – or at least awareness level – concerning the items expected of a project sponsor will be enhanced. The project manager can then discuss and propose the level of decision making that will be delegated to the project management team and those decisions that are reserved for the sponsor. After these discussions, the experienced project manager makes absolutely certain that these sponsorship processes are followed with great consistency!

  • Motivation of the project manager and project teams come in the form of aggressive deadlines and a message to ‘just get it done.’

In our experience, this situation happens quite frequently, which we find peculiar because most project managers are people that DO find a way to get things done and that was why they were named as project managers in the first place! In many instances, this is ignorance of what it takes to actually deliver the project; in others it truly is to see what the project team is capable of doing. In either instance, wise moves by the project manager can help appease the demanding sponsor, while not “sacrificing” the project team in the process. The key here is project history information.

Virtually every project management book or education course talks about the need to keep and archive accurate project records. Yet, at an organisational level, this is rarely done. The smart project manager will not wait for a corporate edict or process to be implemented to start this data archiving. Do it yourself! Substantive, factual data concerning past projects can be the most effective way to instil reason into the deadlines expected by senior management. A meaningful conversation can result between the aggressive sponsor and project manager when the PM has data that shows how long prior projects have taken to accomplish what is being requested in a project. The data can be broken down into major tasks, with variable and fixed length items listed separately. For instance, ordering products or services from another organisation requires a certain lead time that can’t always be avoided. (If so, you can ask the sponsor to support your escalation within the service provider’s organisation.) After this breakdown of major tasks is listed, and the number of hours the staff was working on a weekly basis to bring the prior project to conclusion is noted, key questions can be discussed with the aggressive sponsor. These questions include, but aren’t limited to:

    • Do you expect a certain level of overtime to be demanded to achieve this project deadline?
    • Given the importance of getting this project done on such an aggressive timeline (especially when compared to prior project deliveries), can you assist me with prioritisation of team members work so I can have them dedicated to this project during key intervals?
    • Given the past history, without any different people (no substantial variance of skills) and the same processes and tools (assuming they have not changed) do you have any thoughts on what would change to allow us to deliver this project in a substantially shorter timeframe?
    • If you do want us to be innovative to shorten the timeframe (reference the last question) can we have some additional funding to do research and/or ‘proof of concept’ testing on different techniques?

The result of this approach won’t guarantee you a more reasonable deadline, but it does often result in a more doable schedule expectation, and if not, at least it gives you a basis upon which you can discuss project schedule risks in future status discussions.

  • Not knowing what challenges face the project team, or the sponsor is ‘pretending not to know’ those challenges

These instances of a lack of sponsorship come about for different reasons. In the instance of the sponsors truly not knowing, it is usually because the scope of work that the sponsors are managing is not allowing them to know the details of what is going on ‘in the ranks.’ In the instance where the sponsor is ‘pretending not to know’ this behaviour is usually motivated by the fact that acknowledging the circumstance that is present means that one has to take responsibility to solve it, and solving it will involve making difficult or unpopular decisions.

Whichever is the case, the project manager needs to spend time creating ‘pro and con’ based multiple choice decisions for the sponsor to consider, with facts behind the decision alternatives. You use those multiple choice questions to ‘lead’ the sponsor to give you the direction you need as a project manager. In instances where the sponsor still hesitates to make a decision, the project manager should work with other key stakeholders, try to achieve a general consensus as to how to proceed, and alert the sponsor that as a result of that input you have received you will proceed with option X unless instructed otherwise. You will DEFINITELY want to document that in multiple emails with a deadline as to when you will act in a certain manner to allow time for the sponsor to respond, and to document your need to have a decision made and move forward in some manner. Remember a non-decision is a decision, and rarely is in the best interest of the business.

Using these techniques, the diligent project manager can facilitate sponsor decision making and give the sponsor the data to assist in business and personal needs prioritisation. At the same time, these techniques allow the project manager to proceed with the project.

Sponsor shortcomings are never easy to deal with, and these recommended actions aren’t for the faint hearted. They can work however, if done with the appropriate diligent homework and delivered with patience for often overworked or otherwise stressed senior leaders.

Bob McGannon is a Founder and Principal of MINDAVATION, a company providing project management services, leadership workshops and team building programs throughout North America, Europe, the Middle East and Australasia. Bob can be reached at MINDAVATION via the web at WWW.MINDAVATION.COM or by calling 866-888-MIND (6463).

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