Executive sponsors key to project success

Having the right ‘champion’ in your corner can mean the difference between success and failure

According to Project Management Institute’s 2016 Pulse of the Profession® Report: The High Cost of Low Performance, actively engaged sponsors are the top driver of project success. When more than 80% of projects have executive sponsor support, significantly more of them:

  • Meet their goals (76% vs 46%),
  • Are completed on time (62% vs 36%),
  • Finish within budgets (66% vs 40%),
  • Avoid scope creep (40% vs 48%),
  • Avoid outright failure (10% vs 21%)

Even so, organisations report that only three in five projects (59%) have assigned executive sponsors. This is a big threat to the bottom line; new research shows that for every £1 billion spent on UK projects and programmes, £138 million is wasted due to poor project performance. Many unsuccessful projects fail to meet goals due to poorly engaged or completely absent executive sponsors.

Even when projects have executive sponsors, organisations can struggle to use them effectively. Pulse of the Profession® research shows that most executive sponsors are overextended, watching over an average of 2.6 projects and spending almost 34 hours a week on that activity alone, and in addition to their other responsibilities.  When sponsors are overextended, decisions get delayed, roadblocks continue and schedules slip. “Our experience supports the findings in PMI’s research, which shows that most executive sponsors feel unprepared for the role and would benefit from additional training,” says Adam Selverian, Director of PMO at Crane Payment Innovations, which is one of the world’s largest installed base of payment systems, developing innovative technology to provide a range of payment systems and associated products with high security protection, serving more than 100 countries.  ”We use this valuable insight to promote better executive sponsor preparation in our organisation,” Mr. Selverian continued.

Here’s how to pave the way for success.

PMI - executive sponsor graphic

Cultivate a project management culture

The importance of the sponsor’s role in projects must be embedded in organisational culture. Emphasis on awareness, alignment, and accountability with regard to projects creates and reinforces a culture that allows for active executive sponsor engagement. The relationship between the sponsor and project manager must be one founded on transparency and trust, with a high degree of interdependence. To accomplish this, it’s necessary to cultivate a project environment that is conducive to open communication and cooperation between teams and departments. Such a culture also regards executive sponsors as a critical project resource and recognises the value they add. When executive sponsors are viewed in this way, organisations are less likely to overburden them, more likely to provide needed training, and more likely to prioritise and be strategic in assigning executive sponsors on projects and programmes.

Foster communication

PMI - AdamSelverianFor every project stakeholder, knowledge is power; for the executive sponsor, communication is a superpower. Without it, the flow of knowledge is stifled and the project suffers. Research finds a disconnect within organisations; While 92% of executive sponsors report that they communicate effectively, only 47% of project managers agree.

Communication between the sponsor and the project manager should be a two-way conversation. Regular feedback and progress reports calibrated to the appropriate level of detail for the sponsor help produce better project and programme outcomes by allowing the sponsor to communicate upward effectively. Creating a roadmap that identifies a few critical milestones and a schedule of regular updates, and also reports progress against identified outcomes provides useful insight to sponsors. Simple, business-oriented reporting helps executive sponsors stay engaged without getting involved in specific project details.

According to Mr. Selverian, “Executive Sponsors and their teams need to maintain a balance between the technical and strategic sides of the organisation’s initiatives, create a holistic roadmap of how each project and programme contributes to the greater good, and effectively communicate the value of this information to all levels of the organisation.”

Priority: Executive development

Having project or programme management knowledge or even previous experience as a practicing project manager is not sufficient preparation for being a sponsor. Additional skills, training, and experience are necessary. Almost two-thirds of organisations report no training or development for executive sponsors, but those that do provide training see better outcomes: projects are completed on time and on budget significantly more often.

Taking the time to thoroughly develop and foster a culture that supports project teams and stakeholders, beginning with a well-informed and fully engaged executive sponsor, is a critical step toward successful project and programme execution. Once this cornerstone is in place, you can start building success for your organisation.

“Creating and sustaining a culture of project management begins with executive leaders and eventually permeates the organisation as a whole,” said PMI President and CEO Mark A. Langley. “By getting buy-in from the C-suite on the strategic value of good project management practices, organisations can take the critical first step in streamlining processes, improving outcomes and reducing risk across the entire project portfolio.”