How projects work and how they should be planned and managed are vast subjects.
But the project sponsor (also commonly referred to as the project promoter or sometimes simply the client) often comes new to the game. A project sponsor has to be properly equipped to oversee the framing and launch of its projects, act as a guiding hand throughout their existence and prepare for life after completion and handover. It’s indisputable that as soon as any project is authorised to proceed the risk to the sponsor can increase exponentially. All subsequent decisions regarding the project, including those to delay or stop it, ought to be taken in the knowledge that it’s the sponsor that almost always provides the backstop and is, in the end, the ultimate risk taker.
A project sponsor cannot step away once its project is launched in the belief that the project baton, and all the responsibilities that go with it, have been passed to other parties. Regardless of what the sponsor might have done to lay off the risk, it’s the sponsor’s business that will likely suffer if the project is unsuccessful, and it’s the project sponsor that carries the risk that the objectives set for the project could eventually prove to be the ‘wrong’ objectives or the ‘right’ objectives delivered at the wrong time.
However successful they turn out to be for the sponsors, projects can also have unintended or unwanted consequences for others, a fact that sponsors cannot ignore. But when a project fails, it’s the project sponsor that inevitably picks up the pieces and might lose some or all of its investment.
Any reading of forensic investigations into failed projects, such as the many undertaken by the UK’s National Audit Office, will almost certainly conclude that a project sponsor’s decisive role in the planning and successful delivery of its projects is not always recognised by those responsible for commissioning a project or by those who manage them.
With some struggling projects the view that a sponsor is incidental to the delivery process quickly changes when difficulties mount up. On other occasions realisation kicks in too late when the project at risk has already lost its way.
There appears to be little certainty that a sponsoring organisation’s pivotal position in the oversight of its projects, and the demanding responsibilities it carries, is guaranteed to be acknowledged at the time when a project is launched.
Projects are, of necessity, temporary, often thrown together in a hurry, expected to perform against demanding deadlines and frequently burdened by poorly designed prescriptive control processes. The sponsor’s role is paramount, and so must be effective and fully functional throughout the life of the project.
Whilst conducting numerous reviews of live projects using the GRASP process* we have seen experienced project teams struggle without an effective sponsor or only belatedly recognise the value of one, by which point the project’s hierarchy of governance is already firmly established. Sponsors, like other management teams, deal routinely with complexity and uncertainty.
Sponsors need support and aids that simplify, removing layers of complication rather than adding to them. These brief observations and ideas are offered as a contribution to the task of improving the oversight of projects and the development of the sponsor’s role in that process.
Michael Ocock and Barry Trebes