How can project management fundamentals support a first-time sponsor to deliver a program effectively?

The success or otherwise of a project often comes down to the quality of the team that can be assembled. For critical roles like the project manager, prudent organisations will invest significant time and resource in the selection process.

Whilst there is little barrier to entry for many roles within a project team, this selection process can ensure a certain quality of capability across the board when a project team is being pulled together.

Paradoxically, whilst significant care is taken in selecting a team to run a project the one role that often escapes any serious scrutiny is that of the sponsor, arguably the most important role of all within the project structure.

So what are the challenges a project manager will face if they have a new or inexperienced first-time sponsor and what can be done to bridge this gap to ensure project success?

It is ‘our’ project not ‘my’ project

The first thing a project manager needs to convey to a new sponsor is their accountability of ownership of the outcomes. It should be made clear the project manager is not owning the project but is delivering the project on behalf of the sponsor and they will need to work effectively together to be successful.

From the earliest discussions, the project manager should start to build this collaborative relationship. Emphasising the project is a joint endeavour and the success or otherwise of the project will depend on how well they both work together as a team.

Step the sponsor through the roles and responsibilities … then repeat

The roles and responsibilities is an often-neglected document. It is furnished at the initial kick-off meetings then shelved as the project sets off on a course of all hands on deck to meet deliverables. Nonetheless, clarity on roles and responsibilities within projects should be front and centre when engaging a new sponsor.

Not only does this set out what is required of the project sponsor but will also provide an excellent context for the sponsor as to what everybody else is doing. It should be referred to as often as required and be used as a tool to continually reinforce what is expected of the sponsor in their role.

Enable the sponsor to be successful by creating the right forums

It can be lonely at the top and confusing as well, especially for a first-time sponsor. The project manager should be ensuring the sponsor has the right support from the right people to help them execute their role successfully.

To do this the project manager should ensure the key forums, like the steering committee, are established early on in the life of a project, the attendees are the right people and everybody is walked through and sign up to the roles and responsibilities.

These meetings must then be run regularly and effectively. They are critical forums in assisting all sponsors – especially an inexperienced one – to make the best possible decisions for the good of the project.

Be flexible with the demands on your sponsor’s time

Alas, project managers will never have the luxury of a sponsor being 100% dedicated for the life of a project. They have day jobs, often extremely demanding ones at that, and a myriad of non-project related issues to deal with on a regular basis. The project manager must be cognisant of these other competing demands.

They need to make it as easy as possible for the sponsor to meet their project responsibilities. They should be empathetic to a sponsor’s competing priorities and flexible as required.

This is especially true for a new sponsor. The project manager should quickly come to grips with the sponsor’s monthly timetable, where their busy points are, identify the best opportunities to get clear access, and structure the project meetings and forums accordingly.

Collaboration and relationship building is vital

A successful project is always the result of sound collaboration and the most important relationship is between the sponsor and the project manager. It is inevitable that from time to time a new sponsor will be appointed to a project and the building of this collaborative relationship will need extra care and attention.

Whilst the above list is not exhaustive it provides some key actions a project manager can consider when faced with a new and inexperienced first-time sponsor.

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