Mindavation > Blog Post > Working With The Accidential Project Sponsor

Working With The Accidential Project Sponsor

May 2022

We hear this all of the time – project management is the “accidental profession.” Very few of us went to university with the objective of being a project manager, nor did we enter the business world with that objective. Somehow, through the course of human events, we ended up at the wheel of a scheduling management tool, and we stumbled into a new career. This pathway to a role in the world of projects is not restricted to the project manager. Project sponsors also end up in their role by accident; often with little personal focus towards that role, and with little knowledge of what they are supposed to do. As project managers, it is up to us as to train and leverage this reluctant resource. We need to teach without lecturing, and engage without monopolizing the precious time of the senior executive that serves as “the accidental project sponsor.” Here are a few techniques you can start using today, as we walk this tightrope in the “mahogany row” hallways of the businesses we serve… 

Don’t tell the sponsor what to do, ask about acceptable techniques

Senior leaders are used to carving out their own way and capitalizing on approaches that are comfortable to them as individuals. Telling them what their role needs to be is rarely an accepted approach. Define your own role as the project manager through the eyes of the sponsor, while at the same time asking when and how the sponsor wants to be engaged in project decision making.

It is a good idea to have a checklist of things that you feel you need from the sponsor; you can share that checklist if you believe it will be well received. In cases where you don’t think it will be taken appropriately, prioritize the items on the list in the order in which they will have the greatest impact on the project or will require the greatest degree of time and attention from the sponsor. Ask how and under what circumstances the sponsor wants to be involved and informed in that area of the project, focusing on what authority for decision making you will take on as the project manager. When you understand the limits of decision making the sponsor will provide to you as the PM, it then leads to an opportunity for productive dialog about sponsorship activities. Asking the question “When a decision has to be made and reaches beyond the limits you have defined for me, how would you like me to engage you in that decision, and what information would you like me to bring to you to facilitate that decision making?” can be a powerful tool. Along the way, in striving to receive an answer to that question, you can certainly make suggestions about that process and the data you provide. In that way, you are actually educating the new, accidental or hesitant sponsor, without preaching about what they “should be doing.”

Bring multiple choice questions/options to every discussion

Don’t bring problems to the desk of the project sponsor, bring options. This technique, if used consistently, does put a burden on us as project managers. However, if we don’t have time to do the research to understand the pros/cons of the various options that we believe should be considered, certainly the project sponsor won’t have time to perform this analysis, and the decisions we need won’t be made. The formulation of those options and the resulting consequences are relatively straightforward. Just apply what we have learned through PMI and via good solid project management training. First and foremost, define the probable impact on the triple constraints of time, cost and scope. Secondly, determine the impact on the quality of the project’s product. Lastly we need to consider an area that usually is very important to the project sponsor, but is often overlooked by individual project managers: examine the impact of changes to your project on the other projects being championed by the sponsor. This involves talking to other project managers and making sure you are aware of the status of other initiatives. Remember, our sponsors are often in the same “accidental” role for other projects as well – if you are looking to a sponsor to provide a decision, and you don’t provide data as to the impact on other initiatives, you are very unlikely to get a decision. Rather you will get a “send away” to do more research, or more often than not you will get a “I need to consider this” type of response, that goes unanswered for a long period of time, if at all.

Make communications short, to the point and relevant

We all receive a large number of emails, especially as we work in a world with more home based offices, virtual teams, and international initiatives. In my experience in managing project teams and IT delivery contracts, I have managed teams as large as 460 people. Regardless of the environment, one thing is constant – the flood of emails. In my experience, that flow is actually quite consistent. On an average day, the number of emails I receive is .85 times the number of people I am managing. Consider that when working with your project sponsor – if your sponsor is managing a team of 460 people, he/she is probably receiving well over 350 emails a day. Considering more and more senior leaders are making due with a limited amount of administrative assistance (or none at all) just keeping up on emails can be a daunting experience. How is this done? Senior leaders rarely read their emails in their entirety – they skim them for context and relevance and sometimes don’t even get beyond the subject line.

We always hear about “email rules” that talk about using relevant subject headings, and brief sentences, with no more than two paragraphs, etc. In the case of sending emails to the busy sponsor, the use of these email principles is absolutely mandatory. Get to the point, say what you need, present the options and a short snippet of the pros/cons and be done with it. If you need to communicate more extensively, state the subject and why it is important (hopefully by reflecting on the techniques discussed in the first bullet of this article, or something like it) and request a discussion. Schedule it for 15 minutes, no more, and practice getting your point across in that period of time, while allowing for questions and clarifications from your sponsor. If your sponsor wants to discuss this for longer than 15 minutes, they will, or will ask you to come back at a time that is convenient for them. Either way, you are sure to be communicating, instead of attempting to communicate via a drawn out email that is unlikely to be read.

Strive to understand where the sponsor feels they are succeeding and needing to improve (hot buttons)

The successful project manager understands the product technology pertinent to their project; however they also know that, at its core, project management is a “relationship business.” We do need to understand the tools of our PM trade, we need to fully understand our area’s processes, and we have to ask the right technical questions to be sure we are producing the right product in the most efficient manner. This all falls by the wayside if our relationships with our highly matrix oriented team members and our sponsor are not sound and strong.

The best way to develop that relationship and receive the support of a very busy sponsor is to know what is important to them. “Feeding” them in ways they need feeding is the most efficient way to do this. Through discussions with the sponsor or others around your sponsor, determine what they feel is going well in their organization, and what areas of improvement they are seeking. Tool your project objectives and risks around these areas, highlighting how your project will positively affect those areas of the sponsor’s business or how risks might jeopardize them. That way you will keep relevant in the eyes of the sponsor and you are more likely to get the time and effort you need from that stressed individual that is the “accidental project sponsor.”

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