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Project Sponsorship, The Forgotten Skill

We all know that projects are one of the key vehicles for getting “stuff” done—stuff that is somewhat more complex than our day-to-day operational tasks, ranging from small projects such as giving a presentation, to complex projects like introducing a new piece of software or redesigning a business process. The latter class of projects tend to be more of a strategic nature and often times have a business or project sponsor attached. If they do not, you might want to ask yourself where these projects are coming from and who authorized them.

Project sponsorship is often times an “assumed” role by someone at the executive level, but in many organizations it’s neither fully understood nor formalized. The project sponsor has a critical job to fulfill that project managers typically cannot accomplish on their own. In essence a sponsor should provide the link between business strategy and the project scope.  They should be accountable that the project is designed to deliver the expected business value and has the resources to meet the defined objectives.

Other responsibilities include being a corporate cheer leader for the undertaking, making sure the strategic initiative has the required visibility at the executive level and gets the necessary support from the business. This requires good communication and political skills. These skills can and should be developed as part of a holistic Project Management development program.

In my role as the head of our global marketing and product group, I have the opportunity to both initiate and sponsor many different initiatives (note: initiation and sponsorship are not necessarily the same). In a global, “matrixed” business, we naturally tend to have different sets of competing business objectives—strategic vs. operational, global vs. regional, etc.

One example that comes to mind is a recent product upgrade that was originally on our product roadmap for this year. There was a business case for it and some strong internal champions. We had a high-level plan and a project manager nominated. However, as I looked at the operational business objectives and constraints, including the availability of our own consultants to adopt and bring an upgraded product to market, I decided that for this year this project was not the best use of our time and money. The operational objectives outscored the strategic ones meaning, using the Kepner-Tregoe decision making process they were weighted higher. We “parked” the project and instead proceeded with a different one which further modularized our services. This would give our clients more options, but would require less internal development.

A key job of a business sponsor is to reconcile “all” the objectives and bring the associated projects into alignment or if need be, kill or pause certain initiatives. Killing or pausing a project is probably one of the most difficult tasks for any decision maker to do because it means saying no to something that you or someone else believes to be a great idea.

However, at the end of the day, we all have limited resources. One of the key jobs of the project sponsor is to protect those resources and make sure they are leveraged for the greatest potential business and customer value.

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