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Martin Samphire: Effective and Active Sponsorship Is the Top Driver of Project Success

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Journalist: Yu Yanjuan (English name: Spring)  |  Source: PMR  |  Updated:2020.05.18
(Note: The interview is based on the topic of “effective sponsorship”.)

Introduction to the interviewee:


Martin Samphire is Director 3pmxl Ltd and Chair of APM Governance SIG. Under his leadership, the APM Governance SIG has developed guidelines for Governance of Project Management, including Directing Change, Governance of Co-Owned Projects, Sponsoring Change and Directing Agile Change. He authored Section 19 of the 2nd edition of the Gower Handbook of Programme Management (2016) - the section was regarding Governance of organisational project management and projects. He is also a member of a voluntary group, the P3M Data Club looking to improve Business Integrated Governance (BIG). 

He has over 30 years’ experience in management consulting, change, project, programme and portfolio implementation in both the private and public sectors - in the UK and internationally. His passion for delivery includes putting in place appropriate governance, frameworks (e.g. Agile or hybrid where appropriate) and cultures to motivate delivery such that the delivery teams have a greatest chance to succeed. 


Interview:
Part Ⅰ Importance of effective sponsorship 
Q1. I noticed that APM held a webinar on the topic of “effective sponsorship”, in which you are the presenter. Why do you believe this topic is worth discussing?
Martin Samphire: Every year surveys tell us the same thing: more projects fail in their outcome than succeed. The stated reasons for failure are typically:
1) Lack of a clear link with key strategic priorities,
2) Lack of clear senior management and, in government projects, ministerial ownership and leadership,
3) Lack of effective engagement with stakeholders,
4) Lack of skills and proven approach to project and risk management,
5) Lack of understanding of, or contact with, supply industry at senior levels,
6) Evaluation of proposals driven by initial price, rather than long-term value for money,
7) Too little attention to breaking down development and implementation into manageable steps, and
8) Inadequate resources and skill to deliver the total delivery portfolio.

These are fundamentally issues of poor governance - and it’s often not down to the programme or project managers. I contend that 5 out of the 8 factors listed above are the responsibility of the project sponsor (responsible for the outcome) and not the fault of the project manager (responsible for the delivery output). 

The UK Association for Project Management (APM), in its Conditions for Project Success research published in 2015 found that “effective governance” and “capable sponsors” were two of the key success factors. Similarly, PMI found, in its Pulse of the Profession report in 2014, that:
“less than two in five organisations place a high priority on creating a culture that recognises senior management involvement / good sponsorship as a driver of better project performance. Organisations that place a high priority on creating this culture and engaged sponsorship report 71% of projects meeting original goals and business intent.” 
“80% of the projects with active sponsors reported a success rate of 75%, which is much higher than the average”. 

My conclusion from the research and my own experience is that project success relies on active and effective sponsors that rely on organisational culture that supports effective sponsorship that, in turn, relies on Boards creating the right culture, ethics and leadership tone to support effective sponsorship and, particularly, holding sponsors to account. 

Furthermore, over the last 40 years, many businesses have invested heavily in centres of excellence and improving the professionalism of their project managers and delivery community. However, the same cannot be said for the development of sponsorship by Boards and developing the role of the project sponsor.  Often directors or senior managers who have authority to initiate and sponsor business-critical projects don’t understand their ongoing sponsorship responsibilities, or don’t have the required competence in relation to the role.  

An actively engaged and effective sponsor is the top driver of project success; the sponsor role is pivotal. They are the apex of governance for projects, accountable to the organisational Board or sub-committee. The sponsor provides the governance link between the investing body and delivery of the project and benefits realisation. 

Part Ⅱ Problems in sponsorship practice
Q2. Based on your observation, what are the common problems in sponsorship?
Martin Samphire: The role of sponsors is still immature in practice. Projects, for too long, have been seen as the domain of “those project people”. But organisations are coming to realise that projects are like a game of soccer – there are many players playing in different positions that need to excel in those positions for a successful overall result.  In too many cases, directors and senior managers are not ‘playing their role’ effectively and failing to see that programme and project success starts and ends with them. They should:
as members of a Board, effectively create the right culture, ethics, leadership tone and fostering capability for effective sponsorship. In addition, holding sponsors to account for their project success;
undertake the role of the sponsor themselves on specific programmes and projects to ensure a successful outcome, benefits realisation and value add to the organisation. 

The organisation’s Board, as the apex of governance, must take responsibility for creating and maintaining a culture that drives and supports active sponsorship. Too few senior managers and executives in organisations do enough to change the culture of project sponsorship and delivery in their organisation – or properly hold sponsors to account for successful outcomes.

At the individual sponsor level, some of the common problems include:
Failing to understand the role expected of a sponsor and resistant to accept help in the role – feeling alone in the role;
Placing unrealistic expectations on the business or project team; 
Only having a vague picture of the desired end state and not understanding the trade-offs necessary and possible;
Not providing quality time and attention to the project manager or team;
Creating overly-complicated and bureaucratic governance & structures in the false hope that it will aid control;
Procrastinating instead of making decisions or solving problems in a timely manner;
Showing a lack of understanding, ownership, direction & leadership;
Failing to delegate or seek advice and / or disregarding advice from specialists or those with more experience;
Getting caught up in playing politics instead of managing the politics around their project;
Failing to build a supportive and guiding coalition of key stakeholders and prepare the required business units for the change;
Blaming the project manager, team, business or stakeholders for project challenges; and 
Behaving as a “senior” Project Manager or Line Manager. 
How many times do you hear that the sponsor was ‘too busy’ to attend the steering group or programme board? The sponsor needs to give enough time – not to necessarily understand the minutiae of the project solution – but to access the impact on the business-as-usual (BAU) organisation and benefits. A standard question in the sponsor’s armoury should be “So what is the impact of …?”. The sponsor needs to be able to provide a clear and concise response in business benefits, outcome or impact terms rather than in solution terms.  

Part Ⅲ Key competences of ideal sponsors
Q3. Ideally, what should a perfect project sponsor be like? What are the key competences of ideal sponsors?
Martin Samphire: The five key attributes of an effective sponsor are given in the latest edition of APM’s Sponsoring Change guide: 
Understanding: the sponsor must understand the role, its significance and the project context, risks, etc.
Competence: the sponsor must have the knowledge, and skills to fulfil the role.  For example, suitable characteristics include strategic view, leadership, collaborative champion, and an understanding of the business case and the needs of the project’s client(s). 
Credibility: the sponsor must be accepted by stakeholders as suitable for the role via demonstrable experience in the field of the project area.
Commitment: the sponsor must be able to give the role the personal time and priority necessary to fulfil the duties and responsibilities.
Engagement: the sponsor must be willing to take personal ownership of the project, ensure that effective communications are in place, and be able to influence people toward a successful outcome irrespective of organisation unit.
On a day-to-day basis, the sponsor needs to demonstrate these competences by:
Clearly articulating an end state and vision that inspires stakeholders and the team and updating / developing it over time – with passion;
Putting in place simple & effective governance structures – and then using them to resolve issues swiftly;
Clarifying key roles & responsibilities early on and revisiting when changes in personnel, stakeholders or politics occurs and explains in a way that informs risk management; 
Being sensitive to the warning signs of problems and acting before a crisis arises;
Building strong personal relationships and taking the lead on key stakeholder issues;
Knowing when to coach, mentor and when to make a decision with both the project team and stakeholders;
Building strong relationships with stakeholders and project team members;
Being inquisitive, challenging, sensitive and supportive;
Sharing bad news early and openly but shielding the project team from any unhelpful politics, change and distractions;
Constantly monitoring the environment and giving and reinforcing the strategic direction; and
Being a visible ambassador.

Part Ⅳ Role definition of a sponsor
Q4. Is it necessary that every project needs a sponsor? How do you define the role of a sponsor? 

Martin Samphire: APM’s Directing Change, of which I am the lead author, clearly states each project should have a sponsor. It is a key role that is fundamental to project success.


The sponsor for a programme or project is the key interface between the Business as Usual (BAU) (running the business) and the project or programme (changing the business). The sponsor (in the investing organisation) is effectively ‘borrowing’ money from the business (represented by the Board) to invest in a project which will produce a return to the business greater than the cost (benefits), thereby supporting strategy.  


The sponsor, having obtained the funds (borrowed from the business normally), must take responsibility for realising the benefits with a successful outcome. In most organisations, this responsibility can only sensibly be taken at Board or ‘Head of’ role level. Some organisations are now calling this role “Executive Sponsor”.  This role has real accountability to the Board and shareholders. However, these “Executive Sponsors” are usually very busy with BAU – and, in large organisations, may have a raft of programmes and projects to ‘sponsor’. Some organisations have therefore created several “delegated sponsor” roles with delegated authority from the Executive Sponsor but with day-to-day responsibilities for the things that sponsors need to do.  


The Delegated Sponsor role carries out all the day-to-day tasks: specifying business requirements, interfacing with the core operational departments (users), making tactical decisions, providing a single point of interface / accountability with the programme /project manager, ensuring business change tasks are fulfilled, organising benefits realisation responsibilities…but the Delegated Sponsor is not senior enough to take the full accountability to the Board for the cost / benefit of the programme / project.

Contracting organisations also often adopt an “Internal Sponsor” role for major contracts – where the “Investment Sponsor” sits in the client or purchasing organisation – so that responsibility for the business decisions (profitability, long-term client relationships, etc.) is taken away from the contractor project manager who can concentrate on delivering the agreed contractual provisions of the project. 


It is important that we adopt prefixes to encourage better understanding and to be more precise about the role we are referring to, e.g. Executive Sponsor, Delegated Sponsor, Programme Sponsor, Project Sponsor, Portfolio Sponsor (the Board responsibility), Internal Sponsor. 


Part Ⅴ Relationship between project managers and sponsors
Q5. How should project managers deal with the relationship with project sponsors?
Martin Samphire: It doesn’t matter how brilliant you are as project or programme manager. If you don’t have a good sponsor, successful delivery is going to be a huge challenge.  

However, a recent survey of sponsors by the APM shows again that only half the people undertaking a sponsor role have had any formal training in the role. Frequently, part of the project manager role is to ‘train’ your sponsor for their role on their project.  

My advice to project managers is to have two conversations with a sponsor as early as possible.  The first concerns the environment, the objectives, content and the technicalities of the project; the second is the softer conversation that explores your respective values, strengths, weaknesses and whether either of you needs extra support in your roles. And, essentially, talk about how you are going to work together in a constructive and quality relationship especially when there are disagreements and things don’t go as planned. 

In terms of project environment and content, there are some general ground rules for helping your sponsor to be successful:
Going back to basics – the sponsor should be focused not on just “What” the project is trying to achieve but “Why” – its purpose. Taking time to explore the purpose of a project and the tolerances with your sponsor can be both enlightening and efficient and offers deeper insight to the wider stakeholder group, priorities and the sensitivity of the business case. It will also make it easier to engage other business stakeholders and the project team;
Asking your sponsor for their help in carrying out appropriate tasks to keep them involved (mostly ones that they are good at) so that they are prepared when you need to ask them to do something difficult; 
Taking their counsel – they may not be an expert on the project process, but they probably understand the organisation better;
Explaining that the project process is different from managing business as usual and you both appreciate the value of good project discipline, sound governance, regular reporting, project board meetings and risk management;
Some of the things that might be discussed in the second softer area include:
The respective roles you need to undertake. Broadly you want your sponsor to:
o Focus on the desired outcome and future vision / operating model; 
o Make timely decisions with or behalf of the Project Board; 
o Stay out of the technical detail unless it is to help with the resolution of an issue;
o Facilitate agreement around priorities with their colleagues in the business and other stakeholders; 
o Deliver appropriate communication about the project outcome and benefits to all those impacted.
Recognising (if you have not worked together before) that you will need to build mutual trust. When things become difficult and problems arise on the project, how will you behave toward each other? How will you resolve personal disagreements or grievances?  How will you challenge each other and resolve conflict in an impersonal manner (e.g. in private rather than in a forum). How you will indicate to each other that you both need a ‘time out’?
The relationship needs to be almost symbiotic; neither can succeed without the other, but together you can create huge synergy;
Exploration of how well the sponsor understands the operation and strategic direction of the business and is s/he the Executive sponsor or a delegated Agent? Does s/he have real accountability to the Board and decision-making delegation?
How your respective responsibilities will be split between which stakeholders to inspire and manage. The sponsor needs to able to leverage the wider business and externals to provide support and engagement to the project;
How much time you will give to each other to ensure an appropriate engagement – what do you both expect and what can you provide and how do you ‘wave the red flag’?  A sponsor should not simply appoint a project manager and then just leave them ‘to get on with it’;
What additional support you might need to excel in your respective roles. Will you be welcomed as a potential ‘coach’ to your sponsor in specific areas?
Do you both believe passionately in the purpose of the project? Without that it is difficult to get emotionally attached and exude passion to the team; and

Be inquisitive of your sponsor – and listen carefully to their responses. You will learn a lot by listening and assessing their confidence and conviction. Also be worried if your sponsor does not ask questions and just ‘tells you’.


Part Ⅵ Supportive culture for effective sponsorship
Q6. To help achieve effective sponsorship, what kind of culture should organizations establish?
Martin Samphire: The organization culture and leadership style and tone are crucial to effective sponsorship. The APM research Conditions for Project Success identified ‘Supportive Organizations” as one of the 12 key success factors for project success. It needs the organization to recognize the role and responsibilities of the sponsor across the enterprise and the rewards and incentives mechanisms to be tied to sponsorship success as well as hierarchical and business unit performance. Good practice organizations that support and demand effective sponsorship are characterized by:

Clear discrimination between BAU and projects and clear delineation of roles and responsibilities;
Main Board recognises its responsibility for overseeing the enterprise-wide change portfolio (effectively the portfolio Sponsor) and aligning the projects with organisational strategic goals;
Main Board holds sponsors (Executive Sponsors) to account for realisation of the benefits and outcomes from projects;
Sponsors have performance metrics regarding project outcomes in their personal contracts;
Assurance that projects are adhering to policies regarding projects or have explained any deviation (good governance focus of “comply or explain”);
Projects are regularly reviewed, and sponsors challenged on both past and future performance;
A sponsor is appointed to every project and communicated throughout the organisation;
The sponsor role is recognised as a professional project role and appropriate training, competency development and performance checks / reviews carried out and deficiencies addressed;
Transparency, honesty and openness encouraged and rewarded – whistle blowing is not punished; and
Poor project ethics are confronted and addressed by Board members.

Part Ⅶ Choice of a sponsor candidate
Q7. Would you please offer some tips on how to choose a proper sponsor?
Martin Samphire: The professional community has a range of views on who makes the best sponsor: From “sponsors who have been successful project managers are most effective because they understand project management” through to “project managers make the worst sponsors as they too easily revert to focusing upon the delivery aspects”.  So, what should we base our judgement upon? And is there a “best” option for choosing?

Often the choice for Executive Sponsor (ES) is obvious as the head of the ‘receiving’ business unit is the only one that can hold true accountability for an investment which is likely to be intrinsic to the future financial and business performance of that business unit.  

To ensure alignment to the organisation’s strategic objectives, an ES must be intimate with the market place, the organisation’s culture, dynamics, strategy and board members. This also facilitates them being a true project advocate, supporting the project and getting resources allocated. This would appear to rule out any apprentices and new starters – unless very senior – and external contractors and consultants.

The sponsor also has to stick around; it’s no good hearing “It was alright when I left!” or “What do you mean the sponsor left, only s/he understood what we wanted?” This suggests the sponsor must have some long-term ties to the organisation. Ideally the role is ‘cradle to grave’.

The need for wide-ranging skills means the sponsor is unlikely to be the expert-in-the-cupboard for the particular technology or changes central to the investment /project. However, ideally they should have ‘expertise’ in the environment that the project is delivering into – the project context. 
 
The ES must own the business case and benefits realisation. For this, they need to understand the organisation’s operation and culture, why and which aspects are important to the future, strategic direction and objectives, market dynamics, and financial sensitivities. 

However, for a Delegated Sponsor (DS) or agent, there are often more options. An ES will probably have other full-time responsibilities, for example, directing a business unit. By delegating some sponsor tasks to a DS, the ES still has overall accountability but with a spare pair of hands to support. In particular, a DS is able to provide the quality time that a project manager needs from a sponsoring body.

Do project managers make good sponsors? What about those that have sound operational / BAU management experience? The overall view of the debate mentioned earlier is often “It depends”. I have seen many former project managers deployed as Delegated Sponsors and take on a “senior project manager” focus - too much on delivery rather than trying to maximise the business outcomes. 

My own experience has shown that the most effective individuals undertaking the Executive Sponsor roles have come through the operational path. In my specific examples I conclude that this is due to:
Being close to and intrigued by the organisation’s marketplace, competition, strategy and direction and having responsibility for operational budgets and performance;
Having developed thinking in depth about creating organisational discontinuity – having spotted opportunities for transformational change, benefits and articulated visions for the future;
Being familiar with the Board members and key decision-makers;
Having experienced an operational crisis that has been resolved through extensive discussion with external stakeholders; and

Being a credible leader across the organisation.  


However, one of the things that may be a weakness with someone from the operational side is a lack of project management understanding. I have seen this weakness dealt with very successfully through the ES accepting and addressing this weakness. This can be successfully addressed by having a strategy to strengthen it with an independent adviser or experienced project manager acting as a coach. 
 
My leaning is to look for future sponsors that have come through the operational or strategy side of the business. We’re not saying that an experienced project manager cannot make a great sponsor. However, they may be more challenged in succeeding than someone from the operational side (and who has the required competences).


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