In my role now as an executive consultant (since leaving HP in the year 2000), I note how difficult it is to work through the political environment in client organizations. I’ve seen projects fail not because project managers were not enthusiastic about what they were doing but because they failed to get effective sponsorship support. In contrast, proactive sponsorship is extremely effective in achieving desired project outcomes.
One client in the US government exhibited a masterful approach both to the politics within the organization and obtaining proactive sponsorship. His political plan tapped what he knew about the organization and the people within it, his passion for implementing project management, and his drive to succeed. Here is his story:
As the manager of a proposed massive program to train people across the agency on project management, Michael recognized that since this effort broadly affects thousands of project managers, their advancement and assignments, and the culture in which they work, an unwavering commitment from executive sponsors is critical. This sponsorship support was achieved through a continuous process that began three years earlier when he listed the names of fifteen executives most likely to play a role in the sponsorship of this program.
Working with a core member of the project team, Michael analyzed the role that each of these executives would need to play for the program to succeed. Some of the executive sponsors would need to contribute financial backing, others would need to exercise the authority associated with their official positions as chairpersons of the three project management occupations within the agency, and still others would need to demonstrate support through highly visible participation in the program. Working first with the most supportive of these executive sponsors, he established relationships with each of them in descending order of their anticipated support, saving the least supportive for last. For the executive sponsors likely to be the most supportive, the strategy employed to establish or reinforce their support was to focus on the organizational benefit they would achieve from the program and the long-lasting cultural legacy they would be contributing to; this approach appealed to their established ideology.
For the executive sponsors who were likely to be the least supportive or resistant, the strategy used was to take advantage of the significant amount of support being provided by their peers to sway their attitudes. The methodology used to garner support from the project management occupation chairpersons was to highlight the fact that with little or no investment on their part, they could use the program as a tool or technique to quickly and effectively strengthen the occupations for which they were responsible. Financial sponsors were urged to contribute voluntarily as an alternative to having a tax imposed on their budgets by their already supportive superiors.
An approach used with all the executive sponsors was the consistent reminder from their own project manager employees about the value of the program. These employee efforts to garner sponsorship support were coordinated and facilitated by a project management standards working group. Michael formed and led this voluntary community of practice by building on the fact that it was a bottom-up type of program targeted at the needs of project managers and being led by project managers. The use of this working group to leverage the broad support from project managers throughout the agency was the single biggest contributor to establishing and maintaining executive project sponsorship.
Randy Englund, www.englundpmc.com, adapted from Project Sponsorship: Achieving Management Commitment for Project Success