Project Planning For Project Sponsors: Whose Project Is It Anyway?

April 27, 2012 by  Filed under: Management 

So you’ve been a manager for some time. And you’ve worked your way up the hierarchy. You’ve been running things for some time and you’re quite comfortable. You’ve got this delegation thing down. And you’ve figured out to stay away from micro-management and just let your people do their jobs.

Then all of a sudden your boss calls you in. “This is your project. It’s important to our overall strategy. You’re going to be the sponsor. I’ve assigned a good project manager so there shouldn’t be a problem.” Cool, you think. You’re now a project sponsor. Then it happens. “Oh, and by the way, you’ll find that being a project sponsor is different. So if you need help just call.”

It’s different. But management is management. How is being a project sponsor any different than any other type of management? How can it be?

The answer is that yes, project management is different from operational management. And being a project sponsor is also different from being in the hierarchy of an operational department. Every company is different. And one of those differences is the relative responsibility of the project sponsor.

In many organizations, the project sponsor has no responsibility for the project. Responsibility is instead assigned to a program manager or to a departmental hierarchy. In this case, the sponsor is considered a customer. Of course, this structure fails to value the contribution of the sponsor to the success of the project. This structure typically alternates with a more realistic project reporting structure that includes the project sponsor. In any case, there are some characteristic differences between an operational department and a project reporting structure. These will frequently affect the organization’s view of the project sponsor over an extended period of time.

For the purposes of this article, I’m going to use that model which includes the project sponsor in the project reporting structure.

In an operational department, each level has a different span of control. This means that a weakness at a lower level can be balanced by offsetting strengths in other areas. As a result, the fact that one of your subordinate managers is unable to meet their objectives will not automatically result in you being questioned.

However, because the project is a one time, unique endeavor, measurement of success or failure is associated with that project and that project alone. Although some companies perform consolidation of projects in their reporting, the normal method is to report any project, which has experienced difficulty.

This has a number of effects on management of projects.

In an operational department, the supervising manager has a great deal of freedom to manage their subordinate managers. It’s up to the supervising manager to decide how to deal with an area that is having trouble. While of course, keeping one’s own boss satisfied that matters are well in hand.

On the other hand, a project sponsor has much less flexibility in dealing with troubled projects. Typically, the reporting and escalation process is predefined and semi-automatic. Even worse, the actions and results are transparent to all levels above the project.

The result is that the difference between a manager and his or her subordinates is fairly clear in an operational department. Each manager is responsible for how well they are managing their department and subordinates. And their performance is directly related to their supervisory ability.

However, with a project the difference between the project manager and the project sponsor is much less clear. In fact, the project manager can be considered as an avatar or clone of the project sponsor. In this view, the project sponsor is the true owner of the project. The project manager is an assistant who is responsible for the day-to-day running of the project. Of course, a qualified project manager should be a senior manager in skill who is a worthy assistant.

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Glen Ford is an accomplished project management consultant, trainer and writer. He has over 20 years experience as a project manager in such diverse projects as Construction, IT, Software Development, Marketing and Business Startup. He is a serial entrepreneur who quite literally learned to be an entrepreneur at his great-grandfather’s knee.

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