Of all the things that threaten project success, poor or non-existent sponsorship is at or near the top of the list. No sponsor? No project.
Below are three keys for increasing chances for sponsorship success in your organization:
1. Show small successes. You’d probably like to see huge, sweeping change in this area, but let’s be realistic. Our organizations and sponsor-level folks simply don’t have the bandwidth for that. Our best bet may be to think small. In fact, create an experiment that you can use to slowly, organically grow the idea of sponsorship in your organization.
First, identify projects that suffered from lack of or poor sponsorship. Without pointing fingers or blaming, be prepared to show where and how projects failed the organization due to an inadequate partnership between the PM and the sponsor. Perhaps a key scope decision didn’t get made in an early project phase and resulted in subsequent scope creep, for example.
Then find a good partner to be the sponsor for the experimental project, someone who would be willing to try things differently next time. Identify this person and make your case before your next project assignment. If necessary, they may need to politic to get assigned as sponsor, so giving them advance notice will help.
Commit to partnering on your next project and be prepared to share the results with others in the organization. Hopefully, the project will go better than the poor or unsponsored projects and you can use your results to inspire others.
2. Make yours a sponsor-safe project. Remember that sponsors are often ineffective in this role because they don’t really know what’s expected of them. In his article, Avoiding the Accidental Project Sponsor, Ken Hanley points out the disconnect between our expectations of sponsors (they own them, right?) and the fact that they seldom get any training on how to be sponsors! Would we hold anyone else to such high expectations and then assume they intrinsically know how to do what’s expected?
Students often come out of my project management class with the feeling that their first task is to educate their sponsors. And that’s great – as long as we make it safe. Ask them to help you help them. It requires professionally thick skin to own the fact that you need help from a subordinate in doing your job. Remember: If you haven’t had experience with good sponsorship, you don’t really know what to expect either, so learn together.
3. Be committed to making your sponsor look fabulous. Take a page out of Vidal Sassoon’s book: “If they don’t look good, you don’t look good.” If they look good, the project looks good and so will you. Be intentional in thinking about how your actions and project results can reflect positively on them.
Good project sponsorship in an organization is a win-win-win. What works for the project works for the organization, the sponsor, and you.