Tuesday, May 28, 2019

The vital role of an Executive Project Sponsor and how to play it

The vital role of an Executive Project Sponsor and how to play it
Project support is priceless. Engaged executive sponsors help organizations to bridge the communications gap between influencers and implementers, thereby increasing collaboration and support, boosting project success rates, and reducing collective risk.

Specifically, effective project sponsors use their influence within an organization to overcome challenges by helping align the project to the organization’s strategic vision and plan, removing roadblocks, and driving organizational change. This consistent engagement and support helps projects stay on track. So much so, in fact, that current data from the Project Management Institute (PMI) demonstrates that actively engaged sponsors are the dominant driver that enables projects to meet their original goals.

According to the “PMI 2018 Pulse of the Profession In-Depth Report,” 1 in 4 organizations (26%) report that the primary cause of failed projects is inadequate sponsor support. By contrast, organizations with a higher percentage of projects that include actively engaged executive sponsors, report 40% more successful projects than those with a lower percentage of projects with actively engaged sponsors (PMI, 2018).

The Goal of this “How-to” Guide

“Management is, above all, a practice where art, science, and craft meet.” — Henry Mintzberg

Project managers are not expected to know everything there is to know about a project just because they carry the title. Why, then, do we expect senior managers to immediately understand the nuances involved in sponsoring projects?

Project sponsors are expected to have a keen knowledge of the organization's business, corporate strategy, and working relationships with other members of senior management, associated boards, other departments, and external stakeholders. In addition, they are expected to have a sound knowledge of the business case and an understanding of essential project management practices.

Unfortunately, most sponsors are unaware of these tacit expectations and are often uninformed about the aspects of project management that are relevant to them. The better that the role of the project sponsor is understood, the more the entire team (and project) will benefit.

The goal of this guide is to facilitate this understanding.

Since project sponsorship is a broad topic you will find many links to further reading within the text. 

Your role as a project sponsor


“Of all the things I’ve done, the most vital is coordinating the talents of those who work for us and pointing them toward a certain goal.” — Walt Disney


“Project sponsor” (which is sometimes referred to as an “executive sponsor”) plays a role in project management, usually as the senior member of the project steering committee and often as the project chair. Typically, the project sponsor is a senior executive in an organization (often at or just below the board level) who is accountable for the success of the project, in terms of its business outcomes and benefits.

The purpose of the project team and steering committee is to help the sponsor deliver the outcomes and realize the benefits. This requires playing a vital leadership role in a number of areas, including:

> Providing business context, expertise, and guidance to the project manager and the team;

> Championing the project, (e.g., selling and marketing it throughout the organization to ensure capacity, funding, and priority treatment);

> Responding to escalating issues that are beyond the authority of the project manager;

> Acting as an additional line of communication and observation with team members, customers, and stakeholders; and

> Linking the project, business community, and strategic level decision-making groups.

Your responsibilities


“No matter how good the team or how efficient the methodology, if we're not solving the right problem, the project fails.” — Woody Williams


Project sponsors are responsible for initiating, establishing, and approving of the key aspects of the project, which can be summed up under the categories of people, governance, and the realization of value/benefits. Note the categories are not mutually exclusive or exhaustive.

Across all projects, realizing value and benefits involves:

> Identifying and agreeing on the project’s desired business outcomes;

> Ensuring the validity of the business case and the viability of the business proposition;

> Maintaining alignment with business objectives;

> Defining project success criteria that align with the business objectives;

> Ensuring the project delivers the intended value;

> Evaluating progress and status;

> Approving deliverables;

> Making “go/no go” decisions;

> Responsibility for the overall quality, value, and benefits of the project – from process development through to the end product;

> Managing and monitoring the critical success factors;

> Tracking and ensuring the delivery of all benefits realized after the completion of the project; and

> Ensuring the project’s realized value is maximized.

People

> Selecting, mentoring, and managing the project manager;

> Resourcing the project, in conjunction with other business managers;

> Selecting and chairing the project steering committee (and ensuring its effectiveness);

> Sustaining business and stakeholder commitment to, and support for, the project; and

> Informally interacting with the project team and key stakeholders to keep informed of trends and project milestones (to ensure the project remains viable).

Governance

> Champion the prioritization of the initiative and ensure it is properly launched and initiated;

> Serve as a voice for the project and ensure it receives appropriate organizational priority;

> Provide on-going support for the project’s organization and member assembly;

> Identify roles and reporting structure;

> Ensure risks and changes are properly managed (through decisions and strategic actions);

> Put control mechanisms and reviews in place;

> Respond to escalating issues that are beyond the authority of the project manager;

> Make key decisions;

> Stop or suspend the project, as necessary;

> Control the project’s scope, relevance, and viability;

> Build consensus on project acceptance criteria and the benefits of accountabilities within the business setting;

> Provide financial resources for the project and approval on “go/no go” decisions regarding progress and phases;

> Monitor progress – related to both project and business – against agreed plans and outcomes;

> Control and allocate any contingency funds; and

> Measure and agree upon the completion of the project and governing of its formal handover.

If the business conditions and circumstances significantly change throughout the lifecycle of the project, the sponsor is also responsible for recognizing, addressing (proactively or reactively), and initiating appropriate action so that the project can remain viable and the project manager can continue to carry out the job of leading the project.

Things you should do


“Plans are only good intentions unless they immediately degenerate into hard work” — Peter Drucker


As a sponsor, there are specific things you should do throughout the lifecycle of a project – from setting up the foundation for the project, allowing sufficient time for planning, serving as a point person for escalation issues, and ensuring processes are followed during the project execution through to ensuring that completion and mechanisms to hand-off activities are in place during project closing. For more detail, please see the list and descriptions below.

The 4 phases of the project lifecycle are:

1) Initiation
2) Planning
3) Execution, Monitoring, & Control
4) Closing

Initiation

> Select the right project manager for the job and provide the project manager with a clear mandate, context, and level of authority;

> Strike an effective steering committee;

> Own the business case by defining project success;

> Ensure the project is appropriately organized to guarantee the desired outcome(s);

> Allow sufficient time to perform initiation activities, i.e. ensuring everyone is doing the right thing and assessing readiness and complexity levels;

> Provide input and meaningful evaluation of the project initiation document; and

> Participate in a kick-off meeting and provide “go/no go” decisions for the next step.

Planning

> Assess whether the plans are realistic and provide approval on only those that are feasible;

> Ensure that the team is not forced to commit to unrealistic expectations and deliverables;

> Allow for sufficient time to properly plan the project;

> Serve as an accessible point person for escalation issues and challenges;

> Ensure the prioritization of items that fall across-project and within the project, based on portfolio and organization needs;

> Observe the project team’s dynamics and effectiveness; and

> Review the initial Risk, Assumptions, Issues, and Decisions lists (RAID lists).

Execution, Monitoring, & Control

> Work with the project manager and do not over-focus on project details or overstep boundaries (i.e. micromanagement);

> Evaluate progress against objectives and provide feedback to guide the project manager accordingly;

> Empower and motivate project manager(s) and team members to identify and solve their own project-related problems, and facilitate effective conflict resolution processes for the project team and stakeholders;

> Follow processes and do not bypass scope change mechanisms or other project procedures;

> Identify underlying factors and root causes to address issues in a meaningful way (don’t “shoot the messenger”); and

> Celebrate the completion of key milestones.

Closing

> Participate in the post-project evaluation and implement findings (as applicable);

> Evaluate project performance based on adherence to project specifications / success criteria (project success);

> Ensure hand-off is done in such a way as to maximize the realization of benefits;

> Foster a constructive discussion of project successes or failures (post-mortem and lessons learned); and

> Ensure sign-off upon completion.

Things you should look out for


“The eyes see only what the mind is prepared to comprehend.” — Robertson Davies


The sponsor must be attuned to the project as it unfolds, including team dynamics, overall performance, stakeholder(s), and the organization. During the initiation phase, the sponsor should work to ensure that the project initiation document sells and promotes the project sufficiently and accurately. While planning, the sponsor needs to keep an eye on the quality and clarity of the requirements, and whether the plan is realistic.

In the implementation phase, the sponsor is responsible for assessing team dynamics and performance, and confirming that reports are produced as required and that the reports provide a realistic picture. Upon completion, the sponsor should look for any surprises and for opportunities to learn from the project experiences.

Initiation

> Ensure that the project initiation document properly “sells” the project, aligning it to business and strategic objectives;

> Confirm that the initiation document and expectations portray a realistic view of the project;

> Determine that the project purpose is clearly understood;

> Make sure that the initiation document provides evidence that the project addresses a true need;

> Verify that the scope is well-described (in plain, clear, and precise language);

> Certify that success is defined in non-ambiguous terms; and

> Verify that the problem to be solved is understood.

Planning

Review the project plan to ensure that it is not only realistic and feasible, but that it contains the following:

> Clear “go/no go” decision milestones;

> Consideration of both project-specific and business-related risk factors;

> Quality requirements built into each activity, along with workable change control procedures;

> Realistic estimates that are aligned with objectives and learnings from past projects that are similar in scope;

> Availability of resources and realistic cost setting, timelines, and contingency plans; and

> Clearly stated project completion, success criteria, and sign-off requirements.

Execution, Monitoring, & Control

> Evaluate status reports and project performance for consistency with informal signals;

> Be aware of signs of trouble;

> Ensure that reports are clear, structured, and produced at the agreed-upon intervals;

> RAID lists are updated in a timely manner and important changes are highlighted;

> Check team performance, cohesiveness, collegiality, collaboration level, and celebrate milestones;

> Measure the nature, level, and frequency of any crises, as well as the team’s proactiveness in dealing with emerging issues;

> Assess whether the project manager is in control, his/her management style, and the amount (and causes) of overtime;

> Verify that change control procedures are followed;

> Be mindful of risks vs. surprises (e.g., is the project plagued by unforeseen risks or were risks identified beforehand?);

> Remain on the lookout for opportunities to remove roadblocks and protect the team from distractions; and

> Make final decisions.

Closing

> Confirm project completion and to what extent success criteria have been met;

> Assess whether the client is satisfied with the results;

> Review performance and feedback for team members who stood out (for recognition and future assignments);

> Evaluate adherence to corporate policies and whether processes and procedures enhanced/detracted from successes and milestones;

> Gather “lessons learned” and project documents that can benefit future projects; and

> Look for “surprises” at project close, i.e. ensure meaningful lessons can be conveyed and understood without having to assign blame.

Things you should ask others


“If you do not know how to ask the right question, you discover nothing.” — W. Edwards Deming


One of the challenges of the project sponsor is to ensure (without micromanaging) that the project is well managed and that its organization – including the project manager – is performing as required. To facilitate the sponsor in performing the role effectively, this section focuses on outlining the questions that should be directed to the project manager as well as other stakeholders (during the initiation phase), specifically at the customers, members of senior management, and those who assembled the business case.

Following this phase, most sponsor's questions should focus on showing support, ensuring things are done right, testing the performance thresholds, and providing oversight to ensure that the project is planned/performed/controlled in line with expectations. During closing, the questions should focus on learning from experiences to identify critical success factors to safeguard future projects.

Initiation

> What other options have been considered to address the stated purpose of the project?

> Tell me your understanding of the project purpose. Is it fully addressed by the project?

> What is your top concern if the project initiation document is approved?

> What other stakeholders should be engaged to approve of the project initiation document?

> What current or pending projects might impact, or be impacted, by this one?

> Which past projects have been looked at for comparison?

Planning

> Have staff requirements and availability been factored into the project plan?

> Have functional managers agreed to the staffing plan?

> How were project cost estimates derived?

> Is there a “plan B” to the proposed plan?

> What will you require of me, as project sponsor?

> Who are the key stakeholders? What do they think of the plan?

> Do you think the project will be successful?

> Are there any specific areas of concern?

> Are there any challenging stakeholders I should be made aware of?

Execution, Monitoring, & Control

> What tools or training would make the team more effective?

> How many change requests were made vs. approved (and compared to previous projects)?

> What are the 3 biggest outstanding project risks?

> What can be done to improve the plan?

> What are you being asked to do that has little project value?

> Are you getting the resources you need (e.g., the right people, money, hardware, and software)?

> What are the significant issues the project is facing and what is your approach to navigating and proactively responding to them?

> Is there anything I can do to help?

> Are there any stakeholders that pose challenges to the project’s successful completion?

Closing

> What should we do differently next time?

> To what do you attribute the project’s challenges and successes?

> What would have made your job easier?

> What could I have done to increase success?

> How can we make our next project (even) better?

> What went right? What went right as a result of heroics and luck, rather than good planning and decisions?

Things you should ask yourself


“Follow effective action with quiet reflection. From the quiet reflection will come even more effective action.” — Peter Drucker


In addition to the list of questions (outlined above) to direct at the project manager and other stakeholders, there are also questions that you should ask yourself. These questions can help you to understand the project objectives, alignment with goals, and level of readiness for the project:

> Do I help to streamline communication and encourage quality requirements and estimates?

> Do I create a sense of trust, collaboration, and an open and transparent dialogue (honesty)?

> Do I have a clearly defined role in terms of problem escalation and resource issues?

> Do I have the means and sources to identify problems (e.g., schedule, costs, and quality) before they are officially reported?

> Do I focus on requirements and scope prioritization?

> Do I ensure timely change control and decision making (i.e. a dependency identification mechanism)?

> Do I allow for effective risk management processes – including requirements, project, and business risk considerations?

> Do I encourage record keeping and access to historical information, benchmarking, references, and application of lessons?

Your relationship with the Project Manager


"In teamwork, silence isn't golden, it's deadly." — Mark Sanborn


The sponsor and the project manager depend on each other to deliver the intended benefits and business needs to ensure a successful project. Mutual trust and regular meetings are required, irrespective of busy schedules. For this, it is necessary to clearly define rules of engagement, roles, responsibilities, and expectations early on. Indeed, one of the keys to project success is the relationship between the project sponsor and the project manager.

The establishment and development of the relationship starts with the sponsor, mainly because the sponsor is the more senior of the 2 and, often, it is the sponsor who selects the project manager. Situational leadership and expectation management are important elements in building and maintaining the relationship – to build trust, develop rapport, and establish a strong and collaborative working relationship characterized by open communication. Bearing that in mind, the sponsor's style and approach depends on the type of project and its associated challenges.

Challenges are tied to the project's overall complexity, including its size, reach, value, importance, and risks. Other complexity considerations include the ambitiousness of the objectives, the stakes and pressures associated with the project, and the nature of the product/technical complexity of the project.

When considering an approach for building a mutually beneficial relationship with the project manager, the sponsor should factor in the complexity in the context of the skills level required and the project manager’s actual experience. With low complexity and a strong project manager, it is sufficient for the sponsor to apply a delegating style, toward a more hands-off approach. For higher complexity projects, the sponsor should serve a more supporting role for the experienced project manager.

While working with project managers who have less experience or who demonstrate lower competencies, the sponsor should be more involved – from providing coaching on less complex projects to a directing and hands-on role in high complexity situations.

Beyond the traditional roles of the project manager and the sponsor, the sponsor is expected to initiate a change in the division of work – based on the project's status and the project manager's experience and performance.

At the same time, the project manager should keep an eye on the division of work to ensure that no gaps are created and that the sponsor provides the required support for the project.

To ensure the realization of project benefits, the project manager also has an important role to play in making interactions with the sponsor effective, and building a trustful working relationship. The project manager must also weigh in (to the best of his or her knowledge) on whether the mandate is realistic and is aligned with the organizational objectives. In the event of misalignment, the project manager should alert the sponsor, with the project team helping the project manager to make such a call.

Closing thoughts

Most of the available information on the role of the project sponsor bears on what the sponsor should do. It is challenging to find information about what the sponsor needs to do to fulfill their role effectively and to maximize their contribution to project success.

The sponsor's role is a difficult one to navigate and skillfully execute. There are many pressures to contend with, especially at the higher levels of management – such as multiple priorities and causes that compete for scarce organizational resources, capacity, funding, and focus. Importantly, the sponsor also has a day job and perhaps other projects to support.

Beyond ensuring the project's position on the organizational totem pole, the sponsor needs to be involved in the project to a sufficient extent based on the project's stakes, velocity, complexity, and the evolving needs of the project and the project manager.

References

- PMI 2018 Pulse of the Profession In-Depth Report
Posted on Tuesday, May 28, 2019 by Henrico Dolfing

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