Project Estimation Sponsor Games

Dick Billows, PMPProject Estimation Sponsor Games are played by ineffective sponsors who use intimidation and manipulation avoid being held responsible for project results. These sponsors don’t play the sponsor role effectively by clearly detailing the project scope and the deliverables they want.  Instead, the dodge all commitment and seek to set up the project manager and team to take the fall is the project fails.  So as you start a new project you need to know how to play the game to avoid being set up any and executive who plays project estimation sponsor games.

Project estimation sponsor games tactics

These sponsors add games and high-pressure tactics to the estimating process. These sponsors say things like,

  • “Any competent project manager should be able to give me a precise estimate at the beginning of a project.”
  • “I can’t make any decisions if you cannot give me a firm commitment to be done by December 15.  I mean I spent an hour with you telling you what I want. Why can’t you commit?”
  • “These numbers are padded with at least 25% fat.  What are you looking to take a vacation to the last month the project? Cut these numbers down to something that’s realistic, I don’t care how hard you and the team have to work.”

Games the Sponsor Plays

New project managers or PMs who haven’t encountered a sponsor who plays games can get sucked into this manipulation. Particularly naïve project managers may actually think they sponsor knows what he’s talking about.

From talking and working with dozens of these sponsors from hell, they have one operating principle. They think fear will drive the project manager and team to work themselves to death to finish the project early and under budget.  They think coercing a commitment to a completion date will motivate people to drop other things, including their personal lives, to meet that commitment.

What actually happens most often is that the project manager and the team quickly realize that the sponsor’s numbers are unachievable. Rather than working themselves to death, they put the sponsor from hell’s project on the back burner and work on projects that have a better chance of success. In fact, these intimidating sponsors from hell usually have the highest project failure rate in the organization. Project managers and team members go to great lengths to avoid assignment to the projects of the sponsors because failure is almost certain.

How to play the Project Estimation Sponsor Games

No matter how much effort you spend to get assigned to the right projects, you’ll get stuck working for a sponsor from hell some time in your career. You need to know how to play the game and remember you’re always polite and respectful when talking to senior management

  • First, you need to recognize that no organization has ever fired a project manager for refusing to commit to a completion date or budget for a project.
  • Second, you cannot count on the professional integrity of the sponsors from hell. Accordingly, every mention of completion dates or estimates should be in writing. Never communicate estimating data verbally or over the phone. It’s also wise to put a copy of all the estimating correspondence into the project work file.  Let the sponsor know you’re doing that with a cc to the project file.
  • Third, you never give an estimate that is just a point value you always give a range. In other words, you never say, we’ll be done by June 15.” What you say is I’m 80% certain will be done between June 12 in June 23. Budget estimates are likewise ask expressed as a range. ”I estimate that the project will cost between $15 and $18,000. “

If you follow the rules, you give yourself a defense against the sponsor from hell misrepresenting what you said or telling others that you made commitments when it’s not true.

Importance of Status Reports

As you are identifying stakeholders who are affected by your project for this sponsor, it’s always a good idea to get them to agree to receive your weekly status reports. You don’t want to take a lot of their time but you want people to see what’s happening on the project. Often sponsors from hell restrict the number of people who receive status data or they take over the status reporting job. When this sponsor starts talking about those things, the alarm bell should go off in your head. It’s very valuable to have a list of managers and executives who have asked for status data and you should give it to them every week.

While your status report should be short and concise they should also have a forecast every week of the completion date and estimated budget (both expressed as ranges). That way you have a reasonably good defense against accusations that variances have come as a surprise to the sponsor from hell. It’s great to have a series of status reports that identify variances and also have other people who have received them. That  can protect you from Project Estimation Sponsor Games.

Project Estimation Sponsor Games Summary

You may go through your entire project manager career and never encounter sponsor like the ones I’ve mentioned. Just tuck this article in the back of your project management toolkit and keep these defensive measures in mind if you do encounter a project sponsor who likes to play games and intimidate project managers. Courses in your specialty.


    Author: Dick Billows, PMP

    Dick has more than 25 years of project and program management experience throughout the US and overseas. Dick was a partner in the 4th largest professional firm and a VP in a Fortune 200 company. He trained and developed 100's of project managers using his methodology. Dick is the author of 14 books, over 300 articles and director/producer of 90 short project management training videos. He and a team of 25 project managers work with client companies & students across the US and in Europe, South America, Asia and the Middle East. They have assisted over 300 organizations in improving their project performance. Books by Dick Billows, PMP are on