“I always hit my dates and budgets…”
My company helps people learn how to improve their ability to deliver projects and lead teams. If we’re facilitating a multi-day workshop, we often have a round of introductions, which helps build some initial context and rapport.
Occasionally someone introducing themselves will say something to the effect of “I’ve been running projects for x years and I’ve always delivered on time and on budget.”
What I want to say is, “Seriously? Never had a project that struggled or failed? Never?”
The Odds are Stacked Against You
Let’s talk about the project you’re working on right now. Depending on whose research you look at, the odds of successfully delivering the project aren’t great.
It’s not my intention to discourage. It’s just that successfully delivering projects is challenging work.
So what can you do to increase the odds of success? There’s no silver bullet that guarantees project success. But there’s one factor that almost always makes the difference between success and failure: the support of your project sponsor.
Your Number One Stakeholder
Think of the sponsor as the person who funds your project. When done well, the sponsor is there to support you with resources to enable you and your team to deliver. Done poorly, they are absent or even obstacles to project success.[i]
Why are they so important? Many times a project manager is stuck between two or more stakeholders with conflicting demands. We often aren’t empowered or have the political influence to make the decision on our own. Some would argue we should never be the decision maker.
Regardless, how can the sponsor help?
They can make the decision. They can ask questions or coach you on how to make the decision. They can facilitate a meeting. Or talk to other people’s bosses. They can use their political capital to help keep the project in motion.
How else can they help? They can be a voice for the project. When a sponsor speaks up about the importance of an initiative, people notice. Conversely, if they rarely refer to it, people catch on—it’s not important.
Sponsors advocate for the project across the organization, including the senior management. They set priorities, garner support, evaluate trade-offs, share their expertise, and monitor progress. If you escalate an issue to a sponsor and they respond quickly, your project keeps moving.
If they fail to do these things, the project suffers.
Experts confirm what you and I know intuitively: if your sponsor is actively, vigorously supporting the project, your likelihood of success skyrockets. If they are absent or unsupportive, nearly all the other factors we could talk about are irrelevant.
Your sponsor is your number one stakeholder.
The View from Your Sponsor
At this point you might be thinking, “Well, I guess I’m doomed because I don’t have executive support!” If that’s the case, I need to ask, “What are you doing to get it?”
I ask this because I get to spend a lot of time with executives. Let’s re-frame the issue, from the sponsor’s point of view. Guess what some of their biggest complaints are about their project managers?
It’s often related to communication. “The project manager hasn’t talked with me for 2 months, and now she’s waving paper in my face, demanding that she needs more time or money!”
This reinforces the importance of regular communication with your sponsor. You never want to blindside them with bad news about the project. One of the biggest complaints from sponsors and other stakeholders is, “I don’t know what’s going on! They never talk with me!” Never let that be true of you when you’re running the project.
Or here’s another communication complaint from sponsors: “Every time this project manager starts talking to me about the project, my eyes start to glaze over! They get WAY too into the weeds!”
It’s important to remember that presenting up—to those higher in the organization—is different from presenting to peers or members of your teams. Most executives want the headlines, not the details. Be careful about technical jargon. Get to the point, then let them drill into whatever detail they want through their questions.
A final recurring complaint I hear from sponsors sounds something like this: “The project manager seems to think this is my only job! If I don’t get back to them right away, they complain I’m not being responsive!” This is a good reminder that your project may not be the sponsor’s top priority.
Getting Support from Your Sponsor
It can be very helpful upfront on a project to talk with the sponsor about how this initiative fits in with all their other priorities. Find out how often they want to hear from you, and in what ways (e.g. face-to-face, e-mail, scorecards, etc.). Learn what success on the project means to them. Know what their worries are about this project.
In theory, it should be a given that your sponsor will enthusiastically support your project. But in the real world, project managers (regardless of title) often have to actively go out and get that support.
We often think of networking as something you do when searching for a job. Yet I would argue that it’s foundationally important for all of us, all the time. In fact, I assert that the dirty little secret of business is that it’s all done on relationships. If you have strong rapport and support with a sponsor and walk into their office needing something, it’s an entirely different discussion than walking in and hearing, “Um, who are you?”
Whether you’re two days or two decades into your role leading projects, make sure you are actively developing relationships: up, down, and across the organization.
The lesson: Your sponsor is your number one stakeholder. If they have your back, you have a significantly higher probability of successfully delivering your project.
What have you learned about engaging your project sponsor? Please share your insights in the comments below.
[i] For an interesting description of different sponsor personalities, check out The Standish Group’s CHAOS Manifesto 2012. They range from “Deadbeat dads” and “Drifters” on the uninvolved end and “Nitpickers” and “Mother Hens” on the too involved end. “Captains” provide the perfect middle ground.