Leadership/Sponsorship: A Driver for Project Success

Part 1 of 6: Leadership/Sponsorship

So, it’s mid-year. The strategic initiative your organization kicked off in January with high hopes and celebration has just missed a key milestone. Maybe you can re-plan and re-estimate (most projects get at least one reset); maybe you’ve used up your one-time get out of jail free card. Either way, how do you uncover the reasons the project failed to meet expectations? How do you avoid compounding whatever weaknesses exist?

Leadership/SponsorshipThis is the first in a six-part series that will examine several dimensions of project success. I’ll draw on client experiences as well as research and subject matter opinion to explore the six primary drivers of project performance.

  1. Leadership/Sponsorship
  2. Organizational Relevance
  3. Target Employee Engagement
  4. Communication
  5. Program Mechanics
  6. Technology/Solution Fit

I welcome comments and contributions from project managers, sponsors, business owners, products owners, and project team members alike. Feel free to weigh in and share your thoughts. And if you’d like, feel free to click here to make your opinions part of the “record” by participating in the 2016 Project Pitfalls survey.

Driver 1: Leadership/Sponsorship

In study after study, year after year, most experts attribute the greatest weight to project sponsorship for success or failure of any given initiative. From Prosci to NEOS, studies find that nearly seven in 10 (that’s 70%!!) respondents cite lack of strong sponsorship as the number one reason their project failed to deliver on its promised benefits. (Remember, if you’d like to participate in our 2016 survey update, please click here.)

Think about that for a moment. 70% of people like you and me say that their project would have been more successful with better/different/stronger leadership or sponsorship. This makes it very likely that you’ve got room for improvement in the sponsorship area. How do you know what to fix?

Client A invested millions in a new core system. In Year 3, after the system failed to transition any users to the new functionality, sponsors were ready to stop funding. One of the root causes? “Regime change” had ousted the key sponsor, and new leaders had no understanding of the original business case, scope, or mandate.

Start by comparing your project’s sponsorship to these five best practices:

Leadership/Sponsorship Best Practices

  1. The project has one, clearly identified, sponsor.
  2. The sponsor has direct authority over the target employee population, business processes, and technologies.
  3. The sponsor demonstrates consistent, visible, commitment to the project.
  4. The sponsor effectively communicates with his/her peers to build the coalition necessary for project success.
  5. The sponsor is willing to make difficult decisions to resolve issues and move the project forward.

Yes, these things matter, and it’s a balancing act because rarely do you find yourself on a project where all five best practices are fulfilled. I’ve seen it happen only once in my nearly 30-year career. It was a custom policy administration system project that spanned 5+ years. In that project, the sponsor was dynamic, committed, and passionate. She made tough decisions every day and held people accountable. Both the developers of the system and the end users reported through her, so she had the complete organizational authority to make things happen. And, boy, did she make things happen. She fought for funding, celebrated successes, and embodied servant leadership. To this day (20+ years later), people who were on this project still reminisce about how hard we all worked but what a good time we all had.

But…what if you don’t have such a sponsor? Usually, one of two scenarios turns out to be true:

  1. You have a great sponsor – full of commitment and passion – but they are the wrong person for the job because they don’t have jurisdiction over the people who are impacted by the project.
  • You have to get the right person. Unfortunately, all the enthusiasm in the world can’t counterbalance a lack of organizational power. In that case, you need to start by getting a different sponsor.
  1. You have the right person based on organizational authority, but they don’t demonstrate any of the qualities you need– excitement, commitment, holding people accountable.
  • There are any number of techniques you can use to strengthen the way in which your sponsor supports your project depending on your specific scenario. Start by having a candid discussion with your sponsor about expectations and behaviors. Engage a coach for your sponsor, someone who can help him or her develop certain skills. Create opportunities for visible, enthusiastic communication and give your sponsor the talk track you’d like him or her to follow.

Don’t underestimate the degree to which weak or missing sponsorship creates program risk. It’s one of the leading indicators that you can actually do something about early in the life of a program.

Part 2, coming in mid-July, will explain how Organizational Relevance can keep both project team members and the business community engaged and motivated throughout a program’s duration. Subscribe here to receive notification of new content.