Sunday, August 18, 2019

Misunderstanding the project sponsor role isn't the only problem

Misunderstanding the project sponsor role isn't the only problem
In recent years, project sponsorship has been the focus of a lot of writing and discussion. Generally, it's agreed that effective project sponsorship strongly contributes to project success.

In my opinion, the success of any organization is dependent upon effective project sponsorship. If project sponsorship is poorly developed or misunderstood, the organization will have a hard time making any lasting achievements. And unfortunately, it's clear that in many organizations this role is still poorly developed and misunderstood.

So why is the project sponsor role such a challenge for organizations, and what is needed for a successful approach?

When discussing project sponsorship, most people focus on defining the project sponsor's responsibilities and behavior (myself included), implicitly or explicitly assuming that ineffective project sponsorship is caused by project sponsors not understanding or doing their job.

This also implies that if project sponsors could just be trained to do their sponsor job properly, the issue with ineffective project sponsorship would be solved.

And this is not necessarily true.

Project sponsors are often business managers who perform their project sponsor role on behalf of an organization, and the way they perform should be seen in this context. They are part of a whole and have good reason to behave the way they do.

Pointing the finger of blame for project failure at the project sponsor is an ineffective approach, and not just because it isolates one factor instead of addressing the whole. It can also be counterproductive.

Feeling blamed for being the cause of project failure can cause unnecessary resistance among business managers. In the end, the challenge is to close the gap between executive management, line management and projects, and to strengthen project direction from a business perspective.

And this is a challenge for the organization as a whole.

Any business manager in a project sponsor role has to divide his or her attention between operational responsibilities (these result in short-term impact on vital matters such as service delivery, customer satisfaction, or commercial result) and their project sponsor role (this results in long-term impact on business success). It is only natural that, under pressure, the short-term operational interests tend to prevail.

Unfortunately, in many organizations, most of the criteria used to measure management performance focus on the direct results of the line organization, thus reinforcing this natural focus on the short-term interests of one’s own department/area.

As a result, the company’s performance management system—which has a direct impact on a manager’s income and career prospects—simply tells them that their operational duties are far more important than their contribution to project success. From a wider perspective, one could say that performance management in many organizations has not yet been adapted to the needs of an environment where the capability to change has become a major success factor.

All this makes for a very reserved attitude from business managers toward projects.

If we then consider that the failure rate of projects is significantly higher than that of operational processes, why would any sensible business manager put their career at risk by being associated with projects?

In the interest of their own future, there can be only one conclusion: Stay away from projects. Leave them to the project managers as much as you can!

Building strong engagement from business management in projects is more than providing tips or training courses on how to be an effective project sponsor.

In a nutshell: You have to establish a culture and a performance management system that rewards active project sponsorship and does not punish project failure. It should punish inactive sponsorship instead.
Posted on Sunday, August 18, 2019 by Henrico Dolfing

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