Project Sponsor Project Manager

A sad tale of a how a sponsor/project manager relationship killed a project...

An executive identifies a need for a project and nominates him or herself as sponsor. A project manager gets assigned to a project and assembles a project team. The sponsor is vague about the problem to be solved other than by saying "we need a new system". The project manager cannot communicate the problem to be solved to the team because he does not understand what the problem is. Consequently, the sponsor continues to ask for more and more items to be included in project and the PM does not have the courage to say no. The PM treats the sponsor as "that person in the corner office" and does not know how to ask for help; consequently he escalates everything. The sponsor has to make some tough decisions, but he or she is unwilling to do so because of the political fallout. The project manager provides bad information about decision alternatives, and as a result, the sponsor ignores him. Due to changing priorities, the project no longer makes sense to complete, but the Project Manager lobbies to keep the project going anyways. The sponsor then loses interest because there are bigger fish to fry. The Project Manager and team are disillusioned because the sponsor does not care. In turn, the project dies a slow death. R.I.P.

While this story is a fictional one, you can undoubtedly relate to most of these situations happening on one project or another in your career. The sponsor/ PM partnership on a project is one of those "soft skill" factors that get frequently overlooked when assessing a PM's skills. Nevertheless, this relationship is a key determinant in the success or failure of a project. Under a healthy partnership, the sponsor and Project Manager work as a singular unit to ensure that the project gets what it needs to be as successful as possible - using only the necessary resources to secure success. Under a less than healthy relationship, the project will undoubtedly cost more in time and money – if the project gets completed at all.

Throughout my career, I have been both a sponsor and a project manager, and consequently, I have first-hand experience regarding how this relationship needs to work from both sides of the desk. Through my experience, I have discovered ten truths which I believe are crucial to securing a healthy sponsor/PM partnership. Read on to determine if these truths resonate with you:

Truth #1: Root Problem Identification

Great sponsors clearly articulate a root cause problem that needs to be solved. Great PM’s make sure that the project team knows (and remembers) exactly what problem needs to be solved. It should come as no surprise that great projects start with a great problem statement. The sponsor needs to be clear about the problem, and the PM needs to keep this problem at the forefront - and never allow the project team to drift away from solving this problem.

Truth #2: Problem Solving

Great sponsors ensure that the solution solves the root cause problem. Great PMs do not allow solutions to lose focus. It is remarkably easy for a project team to get so absorbed in the coolness of a solution, and the incremental value which can be had by just taking on a bit more scope here and there. I love when project teams can kill two birds with one stone, but at the same time, the sponsor and PM need to be very disciplined about keeping the project team focused on solving the root cause problem - and not allow scope to overwhelm.

Truth #3: "Good enough" mindset

Great sponsors enforce a “good enough” mindset. However, great PMs do not use a “good enough” mentality as an excuse to cut project scope. Using a "good enough" mindset refers to being very conscious of not gold-plating a solution and putting incremental work into a feature that does not yield incremental benefit. PMs, project teams, and sponsors alike fall subject to gold-plating to solve out-of-scope problems. The sponsor needs to continually remind the project team to not gold-plate and to do what is required to solve the problem. At the same time, the PM cannot use “good enough” as a license to trim project scope to solve a budget or schedule problem. Certainly, budget and schedule problems will happen, but the PM cannot hide behind “good enough”, and unilaterally trim scope based on his or her convenient definition of what “good enough” means.