The last APM Yearbook headlined 'The pivotal role of the executive sponsor'1 and few would disagree with this description. Yet many projects still lack adequate sponsorship. This deficiency is particularly prevalent where projects are being managed by a vendor for a client.
Sponsor is Key to Project Success
The APM BoK (unless otherwise indicated, all quotations are from the APM BoK, Section 1.5, Project sponsorship) stresses the key role of the sponsor in ensuring 'project effectiveness'. Projects are investments made by an organisation to further business objectives, so 'project effectiveness' measures contribution to those objectives. The sponsor must 'direct a project with benefits in mind,' as it is the realisation of benefits which enables the achievement of business objectives.
Business objectives are themselves driven by the business strategy set by senior management. The sponsor provides 'the effective link between the organisation's senior executive body and the management of the project.'2 The sponsor is therefore the 'owner of the project's business case.' and sets the agenda for the project. This ultimate accountability encourages the sponsor to 'ensure that any obstacles faced by a project are dealt with.' and to prepare the environment into which the project will deliver.
For these and other reasons a project is highly unlikely to succeed, in any meaningful sense, without adequate sponsorship.
The Office of Government Commerce, quoting the National Audit Office3, list top reasons for project failure which include two directly attributable to a failure of sponsorship:
- Lack of link between project and organisation's key strategic priorities, including agreed measures of success
- Lack of clear senior management and Ministerial ownership and leadership
...and three where lack of sponsorship is the key component:
- Lack of effective engagement with stakeholders
- Lack of breaking development and implementation into manageable steps
- Evaluation of proposals driven by initial price rather than long-term value for money (especially securing delivery of business benefits)
Other studies and personal experience concur that appropriate sponsorship is a key determinant for project success. Indeed a good sponsor, a good project manager, and a good relationship between these two goes a long way towards guaranteeing project success.
Debate has been limited
Unfortunately, most discussions of sponsorship implicitly focus on projects conducted by an organisation for itself - but many projects are conducted by vendors for clients. The project manager 'manages the project with delivery in mind with consideration of the benefits to be realised.' but where two organisations are involved, conflicts of interest will result. Whose benefits should the project manager have 'in mind'? Whose business strategy should be considered?
Professionalism should be expected from any project manager, but to assume that only benefits to the client organisation and the furthering of the client's business strategy will be considered by the project manager is na´ve. To assume that payment is the vendor's only business objective is similarly simplistic.
An uneasy alignment
All would agree that the relationship between sponsor and project manager is important for project success. But who defines project success? A client's business objective may be met by forcing down costs ruthlessly regardless of value but a vendor's business objective to enhance its reputation may thereby be frustrated. The client's successful project is the vendor's failure.
Can a project manager working for one organisation share identical aims with a sponsor working for another? The primary allegiance of the vendor's project manager must be to the vendor. If vendor business objectives are to be achieved, it is with the vendor's aspirations that the project manager must be aligned.
Vendors need sponsors
Vendor business strategy will include obtaining revenue from clients but this may be through maximising short-term profits, increasing turn-over, or building long-term revenue streams. Penetration of new market segments or developing expertise in new areas may also be strategic themes as may maintaining a good reputation or losing a bad one.
Vendor business objectives are aligned with vendor business strategy and benefits to the vendor enable their achievement. The vendor will need to deal with problems which might affect those benefits and to prepare its own environment appropriately e.g. achieving entry into a new market is of no benefit without the ability to exploit it. This environment comprises not only internal components such as staff development, tools, regulatory framework, etc. but also relationships with clients and other stakeholders.
For the vendor, 'project effectiveness' is no less important and project success no less pressing than it is for the client. A business case justifying vendor investment is necessary - and we know who owns the business case. The vendor requires a sponsor.
Clients need sponsors
But where the sponsor of a project comes from the provider (vendor) rather than the consumer (client) a cost rather than benefits led project results. Such projects rarely deliver the value sought, because the project is not being directed with the client's benefits in mind. The client requires a sponsor.
Am I suggesting multiple sponsors? Numerous projects have demonstrated the folly of such an approach which leads to the pursuit of differing agendas, a lack of proper decision making and a project with no clear leadership or direction. The APM BoK's categorical statement is surely correct: 'There should be only one sponsor per project.'
Fortunately, I am not suggesting multiple sponsors for one project. Rather, the need for two sponsors demonstrates that we have two projects.
The client's project aims to deliver the benefits required by the client, so that client business objectives can be met. The vendor's project delivers the benefits required by the vendor, so that vendor business objectives can be met. In each case, the sponsor must 'direct a project with benefits in mind,' and the project manager 'manages a project with delivery in mind with consideration of the benefits to be realised.' We not only need two sponsors, we need two project managers.
It may be argued that the client project is in fact a programme as it will contain components other than those delivered by the vendor project but the programme / project debate - which might easily double the length of this article - should not obscure the requirement for both projects (or programmes) to be managed for the benefit of their respective organisations.
The two-project organisation avoids the pretence that often underlies partnership arrangements and paves the way for true partnership. The key sponsor - project manager relationship does not cross organisation boundaries, so alignment of sponsor and project manager can reasonably be expected. The needs of both vendor and client are acknowledged and the means of satisfying them can then be negotiated. Contracts were designed for this and, where correctly constructed, ensure the necessary alignment of client and vendor objectives.
The primary relationships between vendor and client are those between sponsors (who negotiate how business needs of both can be satisfied) and project managers (who agree how delivery can address the agreed set of needs). A similar peer-to-peer relationship at the technical level can further enhance project working. Although contractual in nature - or perhaps because of the clarity that contracts necessarily bring - such relationships can be very fruitful.
Doesn't this apply to internal projects?
Our problem was how a project manager working for one organisation could share identical aims with a sponsor working for another. The question begged is whether our solution has relevance to internal projects - those carried out by the organisation benefiting from them.
The key difference in this scenario is that both provider and customer are governed by the same business strategy and should share the same business objectives. In practice, they often do not.
Where a vendor - customer relationship exists between an in-house projects group and those benefiting from their work, the two-project approach better reflects reality, although this may be uncomfortable for some as it highlights the different agendas to which people are working. The duplication of sponsor and project management roles and the associated cost of this project organisation is compensated for by the clarity which project team members can then enjoy.
Where a true partnership exists, this duplication is superfluous. Provider and consumer are already working to shared business objectives and are seeking common benefits. The overhead of additional roles provides an unnecessary level of control.
True partnerships are much rarer than most would have us believe, so objective judgement is needed. The choice of model should reflect the maturity of project working within an organisation - a mismatch will prove costly.
Alignment between sponsor and project manager is essential, so project organisational structures must reflect the relationships which exist. Where a vendor - client relationship exists, whether within an organisation or between two different organisations, then the need to duplicate sponsor and project manager roles must be recognised. It is a necessary outworking of having vendor and client projects. By contrast, where true partnership exists a single sponsor - project manager axis is both possible and highly desirable. But where partnership exists in name only, a costly mismatch is likely to occur.
Unless otherwise indicated, all quotations are from the APM BoK, Section 1.5, Project sponsorship
1 Cooke-Davis, T J (2006) The pivotal role of the executive sponsor, APM Yearbook 2005/06, Association for Project Management
2 APM GoPM Specific Interest Group (2004) Directing Change: A Guide to Governance of Project Management, Association for Project Management
3 NAO, (2004) Improving IT procurement: The impact of the Office of Government Commerce's initiatives on departments and suppliers in the delivery of major IT-enabled projects, National Audit Office