Sponsors are a vital part of the success – or failure – of a project. In this episode of Quay Conversations, Rod and Bec zero in on the 101s of good sponsorship in project delivery.

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Perspectives from the Quay Bulletin


Rod Adams | Co-founder of Quay Consulting
Rebecca Bennett | Co-host

REBECCA: Today, we’re talking about sponsorship in project delivery. Let’s talk about it first in the context of a project. What does a sponsor do?

ROD: A sponsor really owns the benefits, to put it very dryly. The sponsor owns the benefits that are identified in the business case. So whatever the ultimate outcomes of the project are, and they can be multilayered. They can be financial outcomes, they can be non-financial outcomes. But whatever is in the business case in terms of the benefits, that will be the outcome for the project.

ROD: But essentially, most organisations do operate around the concept of business cases and projects established to deliver those business cases, with the sponsor sitting at the heart of that, being ultimately accountable for the outcomes of the business case.

REBECCA: So how much input does a sponsor have in defining the responsibilities or the outcomes?

ROD: Some sponsors are very switched on and they’re very active and they might be very active at the exec table when it comes to establishing business cases. So they have a huge influence in how that business case is shaped up. Other sponsors, the business cases are handed to them and they may have had no input. Other times sponsors will drop off and new sponsors will come in to take over the project, and they may, again, have had zero input.

REBECCA: Is there a typical scenario where a sponsor will be defined early in the piece and then pick up the project and run? Or is it more likely that a project scope will be defined and then allocated to a sponsor?

ROD:  There’ll always be some high-level thoughts about who the sponsors are going to be. Let’s say the project is an ERP, so it’s a financial system. Typically, everybody would think that the sponsor will be the CFO. If it’s a marketing project then the sponsor’s probably going to be the chief marketing officer. It’ll be a project in their domain, in their vertical, within the business.

So when business cases are shaped up, there’s already a sense at the exec table, maybe not who the individual will be, but certainly the department that the sponsor will come from. That’ll be known and understood.

REBECCA: Do sponsors need to have specific qualifications to bring into the role or can they come to the role completely green?

ROD: Well, that’s a good question. The thing about sponsorship for projects is there’s completely no barrier to entry. And what I mean by that is, if an organisation is looking to hire a project director, that individual will be interviewed in terms of their experience in delivering projects or programmes of work. So the hirers will look at past experience, project management qualifications. If they’re good at interviewing, they’ll ask for scenarios that the project director or project manager can walk through to be able to display their experience.

But when it comes to sponsorship, there’s completely no barrier to entry. And probably the best way for me to explain that is with an example. So if we go back to the CFO, the CFO will be interviewed in terms of their ability to be a CFO and run that part of the business. They will not be asked whether they’ve been a sponsor for a 10, 20, 30 million dollar financial transformation.

So individuals get hired along their business line and they are not questioned or queried on their ability to sponsor. But once they get the job and they have a ‘C’ in front of their name, then typically they will end up sponsoring large programmes of work. But they may have zero experience in the world of projects or zero experience having ever sponsored a project or a programme of work.

REBECCA: Why don’t we look first at what makes a good sponsor and then look at the challenges that an inexperienced sponsor will bring.

ROD:  Okay. So what makes a good sponsor? A good sponsor needs to understand projects and they need to understand the difference between operational cadence and project cadence. So project cadence is very different to operational cadence. Operational cadence, you’re often doing a lot of repeatable activities. You have the ability to scale and you have the ability to gradually sort out your processes. So they are quite streamlined. Whereas projects are very much point in time. And not only are they point in time, there’s a number of levers that you can push and pull in terms of the quality of that project delivery. Those levers are typically time, cost, quality and risk.

Now, project delivery is very different to running a BAU business. Good sponsors will understand that, and they’ll particularly understand concepts like critical path. What is the minimum amount of work that needs to be done in the quickest amount of time to get the project outcomes? They’ll also understand the 80-20 rule, that it is very, very difficult to deliver a hundred percent of a project scope. Often the last 20 percent takes two, three, four times longer than the first 80 percent.

So what a good sponsor will bring to a project is a very deep understanding of how projects run and, importantly, a very deep understanding of what their role is. Typically, their role, at the highest level, is to remove roadblocks, to remove roadblocks for the project team, to be a font of information and somewhere to escalate so the project can continue on.

Now, experienced sponsors understand that intuitively. They understand that not everything will go according to plan. They’ll understand that, when a project initially is established, there’s a high-level scope and there’s a series of assumptions made. And as the project goes along, some of those assumptions are validated, some of those assumptions are invalidated. When they’re invalidated, that’s when you need an experienced sponsor, to work with the project team, to start working through some of those issues and challenges that will come up that will need to be addressed and decisions will need to be made.

REBECCA: So you would say then that the relationship between the project manager and the sponsor is an absolutely vital one. Do they have much selection in the way a project manager is brought into the project or do they have any control over the team at all?

ROD: Well, a good sponsor should always be involved in the hiring of the project manager. But probably a good way to try and describe it is an inexperienced sponsor will typically say to the project manager, “How is your project going?” Now, an experienced project manager’s response should be, “Well, actually, it’s your project, but how about we meet halfway and call it our project?” Because the project manager is there to deliver the project on behalf of the sponsor. Inexperienced sponsors will see the project manager as owning a project where, in fact, it’s the other way around.

The sponsor owns the outcomes. The project manager is just there to execute according to the framework that’s been agreed around time, cost, quality, risk management, etc, etc.

It’s a dynamic that really is not understood by inexperienced sponsors. And good experienced project managers will take that inexperienced sponsor along on the journey. And that is actually how inexperienced sponsors become experienced. They need to be paired up with experienced project managers, otherwise they won’t get the guidance that they require around what makes a good sponsor.

REBECCA: What are the key qualities that you need to see in a sponsor around that relationship?

ROD:  First and foremost, the sponsor needs to find time for the project. If the sponsor cannot find time for the project, then the project is probably more or less doomed. So there needs to be an understanding from the sponsor that they have accountabilities, not just for their BAU accountabilities, but they also have project accountabilities.

The second key skill is they need to understand risk. Most inexperienced sponsors really don’t understand the difference. And at a high level, a risk is something that hasn’t happened yet and, if it did happen, there’d be some kind of impact on the project. And an issue is something that’s happening now and needs to be addressed. Part of a good sponsor’s skill set is being able to understand the difference and work through, with the project team, the risk profile and what risk can be taken on and accepted.

Now, different organisations have different ways to deliver projects. And what I mean by that is some organisations are incredibly risk averse. So for example, in government, they don’t lean on the risk lever at all. Government projects typically will try and mitigate all risks out of the project. The flip side of that is those projects often cost more and take longer. Then there’s other organisations that are far more dynamic and they will accept a lot more risk in their projects in return for speed and reduction in cost.

Having a sponsor that understands the interactions and the interplay between risk, time, cost, quality is really, really very important. And having a sponsor that’s open-minded enough that the project manager can have those discussions with the sponsor. Because at the end of the day, everything’s up for grabs in terms of decision making about how to deliver the project. If the project manager and the sponsor can get on the same page around what’s acceptable around risk, cost, time, quality, then you can start to set the framework around how the project’s going to be delivered.

REBECCA: So in that context, looking at the relationship between the project manager and the sponsor is critical. What about the relationship between the sponsor and the steer co or the other stakeholders in the business?

ROD:  Well, equally critical. The steer co will look to the sponsor for guidance. So ultimately, the sponsor is accountable for the business benefits. But the sponsor has a very, very important role to play at the steer co level and has a significant voice in that steer co. The steer co will look to the sponsor to gain confidence that the project is on the right track, that the sponsor understands the complexity and the challenges of the project. They will, more often than not, take the sponsor’s lead.

Now, if the sponsor’s inexperienced and is in open warfare with the project team or actually doesn’t have the time to invest in the project, those governance structures, like steering committees, will be extremely problematic. It comes back to the sponsor and the project manager being in lockstep and being on the same page. You see sometimes sponsors throwing the project manager under the bus and sometimes it’s warranted, other times it’s not. It is because of a lack of experience with the sponsor.

So if there’s an organisation that has a blame culture, very easy to point the finger at an individual like a project manager. Whereas it may well be that the sponsor has been a blocker, hasn’t enabled good decision making, hasn’t understood some of the complexities and challenges around the project. So from a steer co perspective, it’s critical that the sponsor is experienced, has the right relationship with the project manager, and also does some of the pre-syndication with the steer co before you actually get in the room.

And sometimes the project manager doesn’t have direct access to steer co members. So the sponsor needs to pick up that slack. What I keep coming back to, the ability for the sponsor and the project manager to work in unison, is vitally important if you want the project to be successful.

REBECCA: Stepping back for a second and looking at the inexperienced sponsor, one of the things we often talk about is that people often don’t know what they don’t know. In the context of a new sponsor, is there latitude for learning in this type of role?

ROD: Oh, absolutely there is. But there’s a number of key ingredients that the sponsor will need to bring to the table to enable them to learn. First and foremost is time. They will need to find the time for the project. If they just focus on their BAU activities, then they’re never going to learn. They’ll need to bring an open and an inquiring mind to the table as well. Because project delivery is all about addressing a series of risks and issues as you go along to get your outcome.

And as I said earlier, all projects are ultimately based on a series of assumptions that are either proved valid or invalid as you go along. And the ability to successfully navigate when assumptions are made that are invalid is critical to project delivery. The sponsors need to also have a sense of there’s no good news or bad news, there’s just news. And what I mean by that is, if a sponsor tends to blame or point the finger, that’s not going to be a very helpful or conducive environment.

When an issue arises in a project, you might make an assumption, you might take a risk, you sign off on it. Comes to pass that the risk has now turned into an issue. The best way to address that issue is in a non-emotive way. And that maturity is very important in terms of dealing with uncertainty. And not all sponsors have the ability to do that.

REBECCA: Does that come down to the relationships that they have across the business and their ability to communicate well, that those risks or those issues exist?

ROD: Often, a good sponsor will also have good subject-matter experts out of the business working on the project. So it’s not all just falling on one person’s shoulders. The more the business A-team is embedded in a project, whether it’s an agile project or waterfall or iterative or whatever, the more chance the sponsor has to have the right people doing the analysis to come up with the right recommendations and the right thinking to enable the sponsor to come up with good decisions.

REBECCA: So how much control does a sponsor have over the composition of those teams?

ROD: They’ve probably got more control than they think. But the challenge is, often, they’re bonused and remunerated on the here and now. Sponsors are loathe to remove their best people out of BAU and put them into a project that may not deliver benefits for one, two, three or four years into the future, if it’s a programme of work that requires 18 months of foundational pieces to be put in place. So you’re actually not seeing the benefits for some time. That can be challenging.

The other challenge is, and we see this in all organisations, that someone that’s working in the business will be assigned to a project, but they’re already at a hundred percent capacity in their day-to-day. So they actually don’t have the time. The sponsor might influence the make-up of the project, but the actual business people that are assigned to the project don’t have the bandwidth and then that becomes a problem.

REBECCA: So is this where augmenting your team with external resources is most likely?

ROD: Yes. It’s difficult to augment a team with external resources that require BAU expertise or subject-matter expertise. In the perfect world, you get the A-team and they get backfilled in the business. But that’s not always possible. It’s probably better to augment the team rather than have somebody trying to do two jobs.

But again, it’s a conversation with the sponsor because there becomes a financial impact on the project if, all of a sudden, you have to go out and start hiring business BAs. It’s not straightforward and it’s not linear. And your good project management will work in and around all of those dynamics.

REBECCA: Let’s go back to the cultural conversation and the challenges that exist around a good news or no-news-is-good-news culture. We’ve seen over the last three, four years, a lot of projects or a lot of organisations come unstuck by boards only receiving good news or watermelon project, where it’s green on the outside but bleeding red on the inside. How does that situation tend to develop?

ROD: When you mention the term culture, certainly there’s organisations where management perceive that boards only want to hear good news. Now, that might be right, that might be wrong. But once that’s the perception, then it becomes the reality in terms of how they operate. So what then tends to happen from a project perspective is, if you have an immature sponsor or you have a sponsor that actually only wants to deliver the good news, then the reporting that’s done around the project often just looks for the positives. So by the time these issues are uncovered, they might be 10 times worse than what they would have been if they were called out earlier.

REBECCA: What role does the sponsor play in turning that kind of good news culture around? Is it possible?

ROD: The role the sponsors should play there is they should be open to the full status of the project and they should satisfy themselves. Now, whether it’s by spending time with the project manager or the change manager or the business and the business leaders where the project is being delivered into. Spend some time with those people and ask the questions. Are you comfortable with the scope? Are your requirements being met? Do you feel that there’s the right amount of effort around the management of the business change, not just the technical implementation?

Now, if you look at a project as people, process and systems, all three have to work in concert. Often the criticism is technology just focuses on the technology. But for something to work end-to-end, all three of those areas need to be catered for. So the sponsor can’t have a glass jaw, for a start. They need to be open enough to be looking for genuine outcomes, have the inquiring mind and, where there are issues, they need to be confident enough for those issues to be called out in the right forums.

REBECCA: Where they are not actually helping because they don’t have that openness or that willingness to hear the challenges that are existing, is that an opportunity for an organisation to substitute a new sponsor into the project? And if so, what kind of consequences could that have?

ROD: Some sponsors, like some project managers, just aren’t up to it. There’s a difference between an immature sponsor, who don’t know what they don’t know, versus a sponsor that actually has that good news culture and is always looking just to present a good news story. They’re both equally destructive in terms of good project outcomes.

There’s an opportunity to, certainly, bring an existing sponsor up to speed by partnering them with the right expertise in terms of project management. There’s also the opportunity for sponsor training. Now, sponsor training isn’t often undertaken, but there are some organisations that will take advantage of sponsor training, and typically that sits within the PMO. And any new sponsor that comes along should go through that course.

If a sponsor really is just all about good news, there’s not a whole lot that can be done. It’s really difficult because it’s often too late, by the time the project’s gone off the rails, to course correct. Because the amount of good news that’s been delivered, it could be six or 12 months down the track.

REBECCA: What was the likely decision in a steer co position, looking at both the sponsors and the projects, either for course correction or for killing the project?

ROD: Not a lot of organisations have the maturity to kill a project. For a project to be killed, it absolutely needs a very switched-on sponsor to be able to identify exactly where the project is and have the confidence to call it out. Immature sponsors probably struggle with the true status of a project. And also sponsors that don’t have the time. It’s a difficult one to answer. Typically, project managers get removed before sponsors, and that may not be the right course.

REBECCA: Which becomes a very challenging perspective on ownership of the projects.

ROD: Yeah, it does.

REBECCA: Where does that fit in terms of governance?

ROD: There’s lots of different ways for governance to be set up for a project. So ultimately, there is some organisational or financial governance around getting business cases approved. And then those business cases are handed over to a sponsor to deliver. So there’s a layer of governance beyond the project governance which will sit within the organisation to ensure that the business cases get delivered to achieve the organisation’s strategy. So there are multiple layers of governance, and all organisations have different governance layers.

REBECCA: So in that context, what are some of the typical governance or steer co conversations that you are likely to be having?

ROD: Well, the critical thing for me is, the ownership is around, “It’s not my project, it’s your project. But I’ll meet you halfway and call it our project.” So the ownership really needs to sit between the sponsor and the project manager. So the sponsor is accountable for the outcomes. The project manager is accountable for how we get to those outcomes. And they’re intertwined and inexplicably linked. It’s that relationship between the sponsor and the project manager where ownership is critical. And it really is joint ownership for the best outcomes, because they both need each other.

REBECCA: So for those sponsors and project managers that are quite switched on, we start seeing what we’ve known as brave, smart conversations.

ROD: Yeah. What I look for in a good project manager is, the moment something comes up that might be a significant issue, the first thing they do is give the sponsor a heads up. So it might be a phone call, it might be a text, might be a quick conversation. And that heads up is, “This has just popped up. I’m not a hundred percent sure if it actually is an issue, but there’s a chance. Just letting you know.” And then setting the sponsor’s expectation to say, “Be back to you in 48 hours.

If it is an issue, I’ll be back to you with a clear understanding of what it is, the three or four options, the pros and cons and a recommendation.”

So the project manager and the project team take ownership to do all the triage of something that’s potentially an issue for the project. And the sponsor’s engaged the whole way along. Because at some point, then the sponsor needs to take ownership of facilitating the decision making. So they need to take ownership in calling an emergency steer co or getting a working group together. And then providing their gravitas to influence, to set out the challenge and influence the steer co to get to the right decision. And take ownership of that decision.

You need the ownership of being able to work through the risks and issues. And that sits with the project team. And then you need ownership of facilitating the good decisions. And that ultimately sits with the sponsor.

REBECCA: So that would imply that, as a sponsor, you need to be able to influence the relationships you form and the decisions being made.

ROD: Influencing is a key part of a good sponsor. Those sponsors that can’t influence, they’re going to struggle to get decisions made that they’re aligned to.

REBECCA: What are the typical outcomes when you have a sponsor who is struggling, in a steer co situation, to influence?

ROD: A good sponsor will always just have their eye on the scope. And the fact that a project is a journey of discovery, for want of a better term, there’s going to be decision points the whole way along. If they can’t influence those decision points, then they’re going to struggle to have their agenda around the project, execute it, not lose control of the execution of the scope.

They do need to be good at influencing. And they need to bring that skill set to the key forums, whether they be steering committees or working groups or whatever they may be. And they need to be able to fight in the corner of the project.

REBECCA: That level of influence, is that a skill that you can cultivate? And if so, how can it be cultivated?

ROD: Some people just, by default, are good at influencing. They’re confident about what they want. They have good communication skills. They know how to develop relationships. They know about no surprises. If you want to get a bad decision from a steer co, make sure everyone’s surprised in the room. But a good influencer will actually make sure that they syndicate everything with the key decision makers. And that’s a skill in itself.

We’ve seen organisations that can have 20 people in a steer co. It’s way too many. It’s impossible to get around to all of those people. So what a good sponsor will do, will understand who are the four or five people in that room that are the key decision makers and the key influencers, and they will target them. If you’ve got an inexperienced or an immature sponsor that actually doesn’t have the ability to influence, then your project’s in a lot of trouble, particularly if you need crisp decision making.

REBECCA: If there’s a sponsor listening out there, what would be your final piece of advice?

ROD: My final piece of advice would be that the critical relationship is sponsor and project manager. Is building that relationship, allowing the project manager to help you, as a sponsor, in terms of identifying what they need from you to help make the project successful.

Having that trust in the project manager and the project team around the ability to execute the project. And building that relationship so the project manager is completely enabled to be transparent with you, the sponsor, around the real status of the project. And pushing back on the project manager, making sure that the project team doesn’t just bring you problems, that they actually bring you possible solutions and recommendations.

And the solutions are well worked with pros and cons. And just having that view that it’s a jointly-owned initiative. If you can get to that situation, as a sponsor, assuming, of course, the project manager has the skills and experience to execute, you’re going to go a long way towards a successful delivery of your project.

REBECCA:  That’s it for today’s Quay Conversation. If you found today’s episode useful, you can find the show notes on our website and you can subscribe to the podcast by searching for us on your favourite podcast. Thanks for listening.

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