Project Sponsor – How to Train a Bad One

Dick Billows, PMP
Dick Billows, PMP

Project sponsors should play a critical role in projects. They should set the goals for the project, use their authority & influence to help the PM get resources and solve problems. When there are conflicts the sponsor should protect the project. While many executives understand their role and play it well, there are many who do not. The bad ones won’t commit to exactly what they want from their project.  They  play it safe politically by never committing to a scope. These sponsors usually want to drive the project to a completion date they often pluck from the sky.  Talk to other PM about a new sponsor.  If the have many failed projects and often blame the project manager and team. You have a bad. Because sponsors outrank the project manager, often by many levels, you have to use a great deal of tact in using these techniques to guide an ineffective project sponsors toward fulfilling their project role. As a project manager, you will routinely face high-pressure situations with sponsors trying to do things that will harm the project. If you let the intimidation get to you, the project will fail. Here’s what to say, and what not to say, in each situation.

Project Sponsor Situation #1 Defining a Project Scope

Number one among the project sponsor’s responsibilities is defining the scope of the project.  Its the reason the sponsor initiated the project in the first place. Project sponsors need to give the you and your team a crystal-clear definition of what the project should deliver. The definition should include the acceptance criteria they will use to accept or reject the project.  If they’re playing political games with the scope, doing friends favors, or won’t committ themselves to exactly what they want, the project manager and the team members are almost certain to fail. When the sponsor demands the project team to start work without knowing what’s expected of them they are headed for delivering an unacceptable product, late and over budget.  There are other project sponsor obligations that project managers have to subtly guide them to fulfill. Let’s discuss them.

This occurs during the initiation of the project. In that first session you need to take a very strong position that the scope of the project must be defined in measurable terms, that is with a measurable metric. Often times you have to “sell” the sponsor on the benefits of a scope that defines what he or she wants with numbers rather than vague, subjective definitions.

Project Sponsor Situation #2

Another make or break situation occurs when you discuss your authority to direct the project team. If you are borrowing team members from another department, you want to be able to give them assignments directly rather than going through their supervisor.  You also want to be able to evaluate their performance and have input into their annual performance review.

Project Sponsor Situation #3

Other critical situations are change orders affecting the project scope, duration or cost. There is no such thing as a free lunch. Every scope change affects the project’s duration and cost.  Similarly, the project sponsor can’t cut the project’s duration without affecting the scope and cost or cut the budget without affecting the scope and duration. Project sponsors don’t want to hear this so you must be able to show them options for managing changes to the scope, duration and cost.

Project Sponsor Situation #4

Finally, status reports with a bad variance are a critical situation. You must present viable solutions to fix the problems of schedule or cost overruns.

Effectively handling each of these situations is critical to your relationship with the sponsor and to the success of the project.

You learn all of those skills in our project management basics courses. Take a look at the basics course in your specialty.

At the beginning, when you and Dick talk to design your program and what you want to learn, you will select case studies that fit the kind of projects you want to manage. Chose you course and then select the which specialty case study from business, or marketing,  or construction, or healthcare, or consulting.  That way your case studies and project plans, schedules and presentations will fit your desired specialty.

  1. 101 Project Management Basics
  2. 103 Advanced Project Management Tools
  3. 201 Managing Programs, Portfolios & Multiple Projects
  4. 203 Presentation and Negotiation Skills
  5. 304 Strategy & Tactics in Project management

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