Project Sponsors - The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

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Project Sponsors – Good, Bad, And Ugly

Jorge Gelabert, PMP Berlin, Connecticut, USA

Every project needs a sponsor. Usually the person who initiated the project and is responsible for providing the financial resources to successfully complete the project. Typically, this is someone high in the organization who will champion the project and step in when the software project manager faces company challenges beyond his control. The larger the project, the greater the importance of a strong sponsor.

In my experience, sponsors come in three flavors: good, bad, and ugly. It is important to recognize each type and know how to deal with them.

The worst type of sponsorship, is “Ugly”. These sponsors are usually assigned. Therefore, they have no personal investment in what the project is delivering or its intended use. Such a sponsor tends not to listen to the project manager and instead focuses on arbitrary due dates set by those who have assigned him/her to the project. Benign neglect is common. Assigned project sponsors may change frequently, so there is no continuity.

Spotting this type of sponsorship is easy; addressing the problem is not. The software project manager must work with the sponsor and respond to his/her desires. Often this is at odds with making the project successful. One answer can be to find a surrogate sponsor, a person or group who will benefit from the deliverables of the project and who may be able to provide the assistance typically provided by a sponsor. Alternately, the project manager can ask others with influence to intervene in their behalf with the current sponsor. Your success will depend heavily on how well you, the project manager, are networked within the organization.

The “Bad” sponsor can hinder a project in different ways. He/she may become involved in routine matters typically handled by the project manager, interact directly with team members, and make inappropriate project decisions; usurping the role of project manager and confusing the team. He/she may be a weak sponsor, fail to provide needed resources, become overburden with other efforts, or not have time to provide guidance for the project.

Prevent “Bad” sponsor problems by developing clearly defined sponsor roles and responsibilities up front. In the case of the intrusive sponsors, providing them a “job description” of their role may get them to modify their behavior. With weak sponsors, knowing what is expected may make them realize they can’t fulfill that role, and you may get a better sponsor assigned to the project.

The ideal situation is having a “Good” sponsor. They understand their role and responsibilities and behave accordingly. These are the project champions who provide resources, assist when needed, and support the project manager in his/her decisions. It’s a company executive who is personally invested in the project success.

Whether “Good,” “Bad,” or “Ugly,” it is your responsibility as software project manager to manage the sponsor, just as you manage the project. Keep the sponsor well-informed, involve him/her only when necessary, and avoid allowing the sponsor to take control of the project. Learn to recognize the sponsor types and prepare accordingly.

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