My project sponsor does not understand project management!

This was the sentiment expressed by one person on a recent project management course. This person was not alone; many of the group agreed.

We discussed whether the sponsor should understand project management and it was agreed that while they did not need to know every technique they should have ‘a very good overview.’

It raises an interesting issue – just how much does a project sponsor need to know and how do we ensure they have that knowledge?

It would be easy for me to create a list of what I think a sponsor should know, however, it would be a long list. I will cover this by saying the sponsor should be aware of the 5 Immutable Principles and what they mean for the company, projects, project managers and themselves

When I discussed the 5 principles with a group of sponsors earlier this year, one person admitted that they did not have sufficient resources to deliver the project. Someone else pointed out the risks to the business!

But how do we ensure that project sponsors have this knowledge?

  1. We can run overview courses for them, however, I would suggest this is included in any project sponsorship courses you decide to run
  2. Project managers need to be educating and coaching your sponsors about project management – the do’s and the don’ts
  3. Ensure sponsors are clear about project documentation at the start of the project – show them the relevant project templates you will use and how you will use them. Explain which ones need to be signed off by the sponsor and the impact of doing this
  4. Engage with the sponsor – get them to explain their expectations of you at the start of the project and document this. Review this at any meetings you have
  5. Explain to your sponsor about key areas of project management: monitoring and control, risk and stakeholder management, scope creep and the potential impact on the quality/cost/time

Now feedback suggests that these may not be easy areas to action for the project manager.  So what is the solution? I do not say this glibly – you can either accept the status quo – my sponsor has little or no knowledge of project management – or change this…..

Now one person was critical of me when I suggested that to change the situation project managers needed to polish their interpersonal skills.

The criticism was that it was the sponsor who had the problem(s) and not me so why do I need to polish my interpersonal skills? I asked the person who said this how likely is it that the sponsor will change their behaviour? The answer came back as ‘zero’.  I then suggested that as the sponsor was unlikely to change their behaviour the project manager is left with little room for manoeuvre – the project manager needs to change their behaviour. They need to develop their skills to interact differently with their sponsor. It was a light bulb moment and this is not the first time this has happened.

So my questions are these:

  1. How much does the project sponsor need to know about project management?
  2. How do we ensure the project sponsor has this knowledge?

I would be interested in your views.


With thanks to Lewis & Fowler for Immutable Principles of Project Management
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2 Responses to My project sponsor does not understand project management!

  1. Val Workman says:

    Well done, and nicely presented. I am on the side of the Sponsor. The Sponsor should know much less about project Managment. Today, it’s hard to find one who hasn’t had negative experiences with PM. They shouldn’t be accepting responsibility for the “How” things are being done. They should be ENGAGED with the “How” stuff through channels such as the Budget, the Communication Plan, the Charter, Reports, and Feature/Milestone roadmaps.

    On the otherhand, they should be RESPONSIBLE for knowing and communicating the Principle Purpose of the project, the Business Objective/s, Governence Expectations, Business Constraints, … when asked for them. There is a difference between “responsible” and “engaged”.

    The slight difference causes problems when a PM encounters a Sponsor properly engaged, and happily passes a false responsibility to the Sponsor. I might know the purpose for a truck I buy, how I expect to save time and make money with it, what my acceptance criteria will be when I accept delivery of the truck, and how much I will pay. But, as a Project Sponsor, I certainly don’t what to know the WBS used to build it. I don’t want to know who and when each task in the WBS was complete. The task prerequisites are not my concern.

    Nope, the Sponsor doesn’t need to know PM. In fact, I suspect this is the reason PM has become so formalized. Both the Sponsor and the PM have their rolls and responsibilities. The dichotomy was developed on purpose, so one could play golf, the other work less than 16 hours a day. Again, thanks for the blog post!

    • Ron Rosenhead says:

      Hi Val, thank your for your comments.

      Play golf…I think i will add this quote to my workshops!

      I came across a quote which reads:

      As soon as the sponsor has lost (‘delegated’) the ‘I want’ he/she is not a real sponsor anymore (regardless of title).

      For me, your comments and the quote are clearly linked. Let’s get the roles clear so we can all play our part. If that is done (and the roles are adhered to) then maybe, just maybe the project will be delivered more effectively. From the workshops I have run, sponsors are appreciative of the time spent on their ole – 15 different roles starting with: The project sponsor should be engaged as well as having the energy and motivation to ensure effective delivery of the project – through others!

      Thanks again Val.


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