, ,

The Sponsor’s Role in a Project is Imperfectly Clear – One Man’s Humorous Journey to Understand It

By Darrell G. Stiffler, PMP:

When battling through a project, the Project Manager’s (PM’s) closest ally should be the Project Sponsor (PS).  However, there is confusion when talking to different people in exactly what the responsibilities are for the PS. When the PM turns to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK), the confusion just gets worse. We forget that the PMBOK is a GUIDE to Project Management. It is neither an all-encompassing document nor an instruction manual. It is, at best, a suggestion on how to manage a project. However, since many PMs have to pass the Project Management Professional (PMP) examination and the PMBOK is the source for MOST of the answers, we tend to assume that the PMBOK is more of a cookbook than what it turns out to be. For example, when looking for the answer on what the PS is responsible for in the PMBOK 4th edition, go to page 25, and you find:

“Sponsor. A sponsor is the person or group that provides the financial resources, in cash or in kind, for the project. When a project is first conceived, the sponsor champions the project. This includes serving as spokesperson to higher levels of management to gather support throughout the organization and promote the benefits that the project will bring. The sponsor leads the project through the engagement or selection process until formally authorized, and plays a significant role in the development of the initial scope and charter.

For issues that are beyond the control of the project manager, the sponsor serves as an escalation path. The sponsor may also be involved in other important issues such as authorizing changes in scope, phase-end reviews, and go/no-go decisions when risks are particularly high.”

1) My first surprise is that the sponsor can be a group as well as a person. OK, I can understand that a little.

2)  Next is “provides the financial resources, in cash or in kind”.  Now I’m not sure what “kind” is. I don’t think it means “being nice and generous”. One of the dictionary definitions is “a: goods or commodities as distinguished from money <payment in kind> b: the equivalent of what has been offered or received”. I’m getting confused now. Does that mean the PS is wheeling and dealing, like “ I’ll trade you two wooden desks for a DBA service for two weeks” or “I’ll trade you my executive parking spot for a month for use of a server of a month”? J This all sounds too much like bartering.

3) Serving as a spokesperson to the higher levels of management to gather support sounds reasonable. So does the PS lead the group in spiritual séances when it gets into trouble as well?

4) I have always interpreted the statement “For issues that are beyond the control of the project manager, the sponsor serves as an escalation path” to mean that when the PM is having difficulty getting cooperation from Functional Managers that the PS steps in and gets the Functional Manager in line. However, I have seen test questions that state that if the PM is having difficulty getting resources from Functional Managers that the PM goes to Senior Management. Therefore, this leaves me confused.

Another quote from the PMBOK confuses me on page 74, which reads:

“Projects are authorized by someone external to the project such as a sponsor, PMO, or portfolio steering committee. The project initiator or sponsor should be at a level that is appropriate to funding the project. They will either create the project charter or delegate that duty to the project manager. The initiator’s signature on the charter authorizes the project. “

1) The line “sponsor should be at a level that is appropriate to funding the project”, confuses me. Does that mean if this is a major project and requires approval by the CEO or CFO of the organization that they will be the PS? If this is true then on a small project that requires little funding that a junior programmer could be the sponsor.

Another quote from the PMBOK on page 75 states:

  • The statement of work (SOW) is a narrative description of products or services to be delivered by the project. For internal projects, the project initiator or sponsor provides the statement of work based on business needs,……….
  • Name and authority of the sponsor or other person(s) authorizing the project charter.”

1) The statement “authority of the sponsor or other person(s) authorizing the project” would allude that there are others authorized to initiate a project and sign the Project Charter.

On page 125 the PMPOK states:

Deliverables that meet the acceptance criteria are formally signed off and approved by the customer or sponsor. Formal documentation received from the customer or sponsor acknowledging formal stakeholder acceptance of the project’s deliverables is forwarded to the Close Project or Phase process.”

1) The PS signs off on approval of the deliverables.

Page 215 of the PMBOK states:

“The project management team is a subset of the project team and is responsible for the project management and leadership activities such as initiating, planning, executing, monitoring, controlling, and closing the various project phases. This group can also be referred to as the core, executive, or leadership team. For smaller projects, the project management responsibilities can be shared by the entire team or administered solely by the project manager. The project sponsor works with the project management team, typically assisting with matters such as project funding, clarifying scope, monitoring progress, and influencing others in order to benefit the project.”

1) I like this statement, it let’s me know that the PS is the go-to-person when you need guidance.

The wording in the PMBOK on what the PS is really supposed to do still confuses me. One thing I know for sure; if you have any question what the PS is responsible for, ask them and they can clear up exactly what they think their responsibilities are.

2 replies
  1. Dennis Vlasich
    Dennis Vlasich says:

    I’m finding three levels or categories of project sponsor:
    Philosophical – Usually upper level management that understands and commits to the concept and is willing to support the necessary cultural changes.
    Fiscal – The one whose budget is funding the project willing to take the risk of losing the money if the project is killed.
    Functional – This is the one (or group) that will realize the functional benefits of the project.

    Depending on the scope of the project, if you don’t have sponsorship at all these levels, the project is doomed.

  2. Christopher J. Ford
    Christopher J. Ford says:

    There is also the idea that the PS should be high enough in authority to resolve conflicts across the organizational boundaries. In the three (3) types that Dennis identified, i would almost say that all three would be on your steering committee, but that the PS of record should be the one with the highest organizational authority.

Comments are closed.