Doctor Project Forum – Helpful Advice for Managing Project Sponsors

November 2009

Dear Doctor Project

My project sponsor is a problem. He doesn’t read my status reports, change requests, etc. He often doesn’t let me present to the steering committee on key issues yet he doesn’t have all of the facts to be able to present in my absence. Nor does he ask me for this information, prior to the steering committee meeting.

When I do have meetings with my sponsor, he seems to have an excessive use of his Blackberry. When I need him for a decision he is most often unavailable in a timely manner or gives me a cursory approval, scolding me afterwards for implementing a change without his explicit knowledge. When things fall behind schedule, the stakeholders protest or other members of management express a concern about the management of my project, he’ll accuse me of not knowing what is going on with my team and not being sensitive to the needs of the stakeholders.

Should I quit?

Dear Anguished,

Don’t quit. There is hope. Your sponsor suffers from a lack of understanding of his role and responsibility in ensuring project success. It’s what I call “A Sponsor who doesn’t know what they don’t know about project management”.

It is not uncommon that your sponsor will not be aware of their responsibilities in helping to ensure project success. Realistically, they won’t devote the time necessary to take a course to learn about project management. This isn’t for reasons of disinterest; rather it is a lack of time on their part. Their role is strategically focussed, not task focussed and as such they do not need to understand the details of managing a project. That’s the project manager and project team’s responsibility.

The sponsor does need to understand the role they have to play in helping ensure the project’s success. This requires far less of a time commitment on their part than attending a workshop. Now this is going to seem a little strange but it is your job to educate your sponsor. You’ll want to do this verbally since it seems he doesn’t read your reports. Advise your sponsor (thereby providing him with knowledge and education) on some of his responsibilities including:
The Scope Statement – give him a quick overview of the key elements of your project’s scope statement including the goal, deliverables, assumptions and constraints. Gain a verbal agreement that these are correct, as he sees it.

  • The Project Plan – give him a high-level overview of the major pieces of work to be performed. This is where you can identify some of your execution challenges i.e.; resources, time, etc. Do not ask for help yet. You’re just trying to gain his understanding.
  • Milestones – Give him a high-level list of the project’s milestones. The importance to him is that he’ll want to follow-up on these to ensure they’ll be completed according to the planned date. If one of them is late, there is likelihood that the entire project may be late.
    Updates – ask him how often he would like to be updated on the project’s progress, in what format and to what level of detail. This is where you might find out that he only wants to see a 1-page update overview once per week, emailed to him.
  • Issue Management – let him know that if issues arise on the project you’ll handle them but will advise him just so he is informed. Then, if an issue remains unresolved and possibly leads to a request for change, he’ll have been forewarned.
  • Change Management – let him know that if there is a request for change i.e.; a need for more time, budget, resources, etc. that you will advise him of the change, the impact the change is having on the project, the recommended solution and the options. Include the impact if the solution is not accepted as well as any of the other options presented. By providing him with this much data, it is more likely that he’ll approve one of the options than to give no approval at all.
  • Risk Management – let him know that you’ll be assessing, on an on-going basis, risks that might prevent project success so that you can develop either mitigation strategies or contingencies.
    It sounds like a lot of information but honestly, this won’t take more than 10 minutes. Afterwards, document every meeting you have with him, what decisions were made, etc. He may not always read every report or sign every document, so put a note on each one indicating the date that it was presented and/or approved. This ensures that you at least have the data to support when you have tried to keep him engaged and supportive.

He may be on the Blackberry a lot so emailing short reports will be more in keeping with his mode of communication than anything left on his desk. As well, let him know that you’d like to give some presentations to the steering committee so that they’ll have all of the right facts. Ensure that he recognizes that rather than taking power away from him, he’ll look good because they’ll get all the information they’ll need.

Please keep me updated on your sponsor relationship and do let me know if you need any more help managing him.
Doctor Project

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Michael Stanleigh

Michael Stanleigh, CMC, CSP, CSM is the CEO of Business Improvement Architects. He works with leaders and their teams around the world to improve organizational performance by helping them to define their strategic direction, increase leadership performance, create cultures that drive innovation and improve project and quality management. Michael’s experience spans public and private sector organizations in over 20 different countries. He also delivers presentations to businesses and conferences throughout the world. In addition to his consulting practice and global speaking he has been featured and published in over 500 different magazines and industry publications.

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