The Reluctant Sponsor

Just after new year I caught up with a friend and colleague for lunch (I’ll call her Nikki). We had worked together very closely previously for a joint client but we hadn’t seen each other for quite some time.  Our conversation was wide ranging and free flowing and eventually turned to concerns related to work. Nikki was having a tough time with her current client. She was supporting a large project organisation and things weren’t going well. The number one issue they had, reluctant sponsors. That is, critical senior people, who had been identified as the right sponsor for initiatives, either didn’t do the job or they did it under protest. What could she do to change this?

I sat back and contemplated the issue for a while.  My thoughts drifted to a project that I had led many years ago as a consultant. It was a painful memory as this was not my most successful project, in fact this project provided me with some of the hardest lessons of my career. The project was large and complex and aimed to deliver a transformation that would allow this company to move from being a series of largely autonomous businesses and business units operating around the world to become a truly global company. One of the implications of this change is that the organisation would need to reconsider how it calculated and reported profits across the globe and between business units. What made this decision particularly difficult was that profitability was directly tied into executive compensation and was also a major source of political power within the company.

The project couldn’t proceed without a decision being made on the future profit models. Do you think we could get the decision made?  We tried. The project team met with executives many times to address the issue.  This took months because no one had time. Private meetings were held with the project sponsor and he knew that a decision was required.  He did eventually take it to the executive for consideration, six months late and it was squeezed into a 15 minute session before their lunch!

No decision ever came, the political ramifications were too big and our sponsor was reluctant to do what was needed. The project stalled and eventually failed due to this. A sponsor who was not prepared to act had bought the project to its knees. As with any failed initiative relationships were frayed, reputations tainted and in this case millions were written off.

There were many lessons for me from this project. One of them was that I needed to be very sure that my sponsor was on board and willing to do what it takes to make a project successful. Ideally, I now want a sponsor who sees that their future is tied to the successful outcomes of the project.  Ours wasn’t and we failed as a result. I have resolved never to do that again (although it’s sometimes a struggle.)

Eventually I said “you know Nikki, if you have got a reluctant sponsor the best thing you can do is recommend that the project be stopped because a reluctant sponsor is almost always certain death to a project.” I related the story to her.  She was a little stunned and taken aback. Did she really have the authority to stop a project?  Maybe not, but the alternative is almost certain failure and is that actually a better outcome?

Almost certain failure is a bit melodramatic isn’t it? Nikki certainly thought so! The research would say otherwise however.  For example, I recently read a summary of the the Standish Group’s Chaos Report for 2015. The major finding of this report was that only 29% of all projects are considered successful.  29%!!  The report also listed project success factors. The first success factor listed was “Executive Support” and the need for the executive (read sponsor) to “provide both financial and emotional support”. But it doesn’t end there because 3 of the next 4 reasons provided, while not specifically the sponsor, are highly influenced by the sponsor.

They are:

  • The emotional maturity of the team and the organisation. Emotional maturity is a cultural issue that is hugely influenced by leadership and therefore the sponsor.  The sponsor needs to lead and ensure that all parties remain focused on the goals.
  • Ensuring user involvement and ownership in all aspects of the project. This doesn’t happen often. We have all heard sponsors and business owners tell us that their best people are required for day to day and cannot be spared for the project.  Getting the right level of user involvement typically requires the sponsor to mandate their involvement.
  • Skilled staff who understand both the business and the technology and who are highly proficient in the execution of the project’s requirements and delivery of the project or product. As with user involvement, ensuring skilled staff are released usually requires a committed sponsor to make it happen.

So, my reading of the Standish report is that sponsors are central to 4 out of the 5 top critical success factors for projects. Without an effective committed sponsor I reckon that means you are doomed. Having been burnt by this before I now prefer to avoid near certain doom and the only way to do that in the face of a reluctant sponsor is to stop the project.

What do you think?



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