A change project is more likely to fail because of poor sponsorship* than for any other reason? There is data to back this up, but I certainly don’t need convincing of this fact having witnessed many an example in various boardrooms.

If we define a Sponsor as someone that is a key stakeholder, has authority, is senior (and therefore we could safely assume has the necessary technical and business experience), can remove obstacles, can provide strategic direction and ultimately is empowered to make decisions in relation to the project, it sounds like the Sponsor is setup for success, right? So, why is it that so often I see projects fail or start to unravel because of poor Sponsorship?

When Executive Teams and Boards decide upon Sponsors it is worth remembering two rather obvious (but often overlooked) points:

  1. They do have a choice on who is nominated as the Sponsor of a large scale change in the business.
  2. Just because a particular individual is an effective leader of a business unit, region or function it does not necessarily follow that they will by default be a successful Sponsor.

OK, let’s be honest it does become slightly awkward when you are faced with choosing a Sponsor different to one that seems a natural choice due to their day job in the business, however, that shouldn’t get in the way of the Board selecting the “right” Sponsor rather than the “politically correct” Sponsor.

As I see it there are 4 key factors to choosing the “right” Sponsor for a change project:

1) Personality: will the rest of the organisation relate to this person, be inspired and trust their decisions?

This Senior Leader may well be excellent at their day job, however, pause and consider whether the skills and behaviours you see on a day to day basis are those needed to make them the right Sponsor. Also, it’s not good management skills that we need here (let’s save those for the Project Manager) – what the Sponsor needs is great leadership. Is this individual someone that the organisation respects? Someone that can communicate the vision? Is this individual ‘visible’ in advocating change? Can you see a track record of successful sponsorship from past projects? We are looking for someone that can be compassionately ruthless when needed, and yet have a balanced focus on hard deliverables and team motivation. Can you imagine this person making the tough decisions in the board room and yet that same evening walking the floor sharing pizza with the project team on a late working night?

2) Ability: do they have enough time and the skills needed to play the role of a Sponsor for this large scale change?

If the Sponsor doesn’t have enough knowledge or hasn’t experienced the process of large scale change, the project could be doomed even before it starts. That isn’t to suggest that this individual needs detailed technical knowledge but their understanding has to be sufficient to allow constructive challenge to the Project Manager, peers and key stakeholders, as well as enough tolerance for structure, so as to ensure appropriate rigour in how the project is executed. Knowledge is one thing, time is another. Is this person a time-starved Executive running back to back and having to reschedule meetings? What are the competing (strategic and tactical!) priorities for this individual? If this change isn’t in their top 3 priorities, then I would question, how this Executive will be able to protect enough time to give themselves the intellectual headspace needed to truly be an effective Sponsor and to provide leadership to the organisation in embedding this change.

3) Authority: do they naturally possess the motivation for the change and is this backed up with the appropriate level of accountability?

What we are trying to achieve here is a level of authority that allows the Sponsor to make decisions. Business improvement projects often suffer from blurred lines of decision making because we are not in ‘business as usual’ mode in terms of decisions relating to resources, process changes, budgets etc. Yet, because the changes potentially span across multiple boundaries, the Sponsor (whilst in charge of the Project resources, deliverables and budget) is sometimes not fully empowered with making all related decisions. Steering groups, Programme Boards and the like are effective mechanisms for facilitating decisions across stakeholder groups, however, the accountability and ultimate decision making roles need to be clear upfront so that there is no opportunity for delay tactics or scape-goats. Often Sponsors are chosen by virtue of their day job, whereas sometimes the day job doesn’t actually matter when the project spans outside of those boundaries anyway.

4) Expectations: is it clear what is expected of them from the Board, their Peer Group and the Project Team?

The intellectual understanding of a Sponsor’s role is usually clear to all. However, has the Project Team, peer group, stakeholders and Board had an opportunity to clarify what they expect from this Sponsor in relation to this specific change? What are the 360 degree requirements in terms of communication, involvement, outputs and approach? The other factor that I often see overlooked is that the Sponsor is not always held to account on these expectations. If no one is asking them the tough questions or for updates, a Sponsor could be selective in what they share or even steer the project to a preferred predetermined
solution to suit their own goals.

Lack of time, lack of personal commitment, no accountability and role confusion are all major causes of poor sponsorship. Talking through, identifying and resolving these obstacles proactively, will significantly increase the likelihood of success of any change implementation plan. I often find the ideal Sponsor is someone who is involved with the change project from cradle to grave and has a vested interested in ensuring the right solution is designed and implemented correctly. Rather than inheriting someone else’s vision, there is an intrinsic satisfaction and greater sense of fulfillment and pride to being attached to a project from day one. A further consideration is to link the success of the change project to the right mix of incentives. Often picking a Sponsor who has an intrinsic desire to make the project a success can be enough, however there are many carrots that can be offered to motivate and compel a Sponsor to succeed such as performance bonuses or a promotion. More often than not, having their name attached to the project and taking pride in making it work is a compelling motivator.

What has been your most significant challenge as a Sponsor and what techniques have helped you to overcome it?