9 Symptoms of a Bad IT Project Sponsor

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The right project sponsor can make or break the success of a project, so it’s important to know upfront whether your sponsor truly supports your project.

Think you may have a problem sponsor? Here are a few symptoms that indicate you do:

  1. You don’t know who your sponsor is.
  2. Your sponsor doesn’t know they are your sponsor.
  3. Any time you ask for a needed resource, your sponsor says “no.”
  4. When you have an impediment, your sponsor says, “Just make it go away, I am too busy.”
  5. You hear through the grapevine that your sponsor is bad-mouthing the project.
  6. Your sponsor asks, “Why are we doing this project anyway?”
  7. When you provide a status report to your sponsor, they never offer feedback.
  8. The project team asks you if this project is important to the success of the organization.
  9. You are receiving conflicting objectives from your sponsors.

So what are the roles, skills, and capabilities of a great sponsor? Below are what I have seen to be the critical success factors for great sponsorship:

role and ideal profile of a project sponsor

Stories of Sponsors Gone Bad

Having been involved with almost 100 IT projects over the past 30 years as a project manager, participant, sponsor, consultant, observer, etc., I have seen great, good, average and darn right bad project sponsors.

The best way I know to illustrate the ramifications of project sponsorship is to share a few stories. The names of organizations, people and other details have been changed to protect the innocent (and the guilty).

Competing Objectives

Many years ago, I was co-sponsor of a project to replace a key system in our supply chain. I was under pressure to replace the current system due to important compliance issues that would impact revenue. The project was behind schedule and over budget, and the window to go-live was fast approaching.

My co-sponsor was under pressure to add new functionality to improve business processes. Testing on the new functionality was going very badly, with no clear path to resolving issues. Competing objectives resulted in conflict and poor relations at a critical time in the project. This tension should have been identified and reconciled before the project began.

Lack of Commitment

A good project sponsor needs to give their full commitment to the success of a project. That was not the case when I was brought in as part of a consulting team to review an ERP implementation and business process redesign. After a few weeks, I realized that the project team was not given the right resources to be successful. The sponsor was not available to the team, leading the project managers to feel defeated, helpless, and resigned to failure.

After talking to the project sponsor it became evident that she was supportive of the project—she wanted it to be successful—but wasn’t committed to doing everything in her power to make it a success. After providing this feedback to her, the sponsor made a 180-degree change in her approach. The project managers saw and felt her commitment and understood that they could be successful.

Lack of Influence

On another engagement, the head of the department whose budget was impacted had been chosen by the client to be the project sponsor. However, the user base and the benefits of the system we were implementing were much broader than this individual’s organization. More importantly, the nominated sponsor had limited ability to influence those outside his organizational authority (and even some within).

We quickly identified a widely-respected, more senior-level executive who would be able to make the tough decisions, remove impediments across the different divisions, and be committed to the success of the project.

There is hope…

I have also seen excellent project sponsorship up close and personal: As part of a global ERP implementation, I saw firsthand how three sponsors were fully committed to the success of the project. Everyday, they showed their commitment by being present, working very closely together, providing the needed resources to the team, removing impediments, and making the tough decisions fast. I can honestly say that without these sponsors the project would not have been successful.

Keys to Successful Project Sponsorship

Remember these takeaways from the examples and definitions above:

  1. Project sponsorship can make or break a project.
  2. If there are multiple project sponsors, align goals up front.
  3. Make it clear what is expected of the sponsor.
  4. Take quick actions to remedy poor sponsorship. If it isn’t working, change the sponsorship when possible.
  5. When it is working, celebrate and let the sponsor know.

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