The relationship between the project sponsor and manager

28 April 2020 7 min. read
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Often, it’s not until a project is failing that the core relationship between the main parties, or the expertise of those involved, is questioned. Mandy Hill, Executive Director at Synergy Group and an experienced program and project manager, explains how an open, transparent and respectful relationship between the project’s sponsor and project manager goes a long way towards reaching a successful outcome.

Defining roles and responsibilities

The project sponsor is the key representative of the organisation who takes responsibility for meeting the intended outcomes of an approved project. “They’re charged with championing the delivery, but sometimes they’re not heavily engaged in the project or may have the rest of their ‘day job’ to get on with – they may not have the time,” says Mandy.

That’s why a project manager’s expertise is so critical. They need to engage the sponsor early and regularly. “It’s part of the project manager’s job to make the project sponsor’s job as easy as possible,” explains Mandy.

“Many executives who are charged with running a project may not have done it before or know their key obligations. A specialist project manager will not only plan, deliver and close out the project, they’ll take a coaching role for the sponsor and protect their reputation.”

The relationship between the project sponsor and manager

Building the relationship

While not all professional relationships are easy, Mandy says the level of trust between the project sponsor and project manager must be high. “The project manager is the advocate and agent for the sponsor, and it’s important to trust that the sponsor is making decisions in the best interest of what they collectively set out to do.”

“From the beginning, the project manager and sponsor need to define expectations and decide on the formality for the relationship. They need to set up a safe way to resolve differences and tackle issues to enable each other to pivot when plans change. ”

“As the project manager, you may not believe in every decision made by the sponsor, but if an authentic partnership has been built, you can trust the sponsor has made decisions for the best outcome.”

Mandy has seen when this partnership relationship works particularly well, and when it fails. “As a project manager, I have worked with some great project sponsors in government who were very engaged and invested in the project and we had a high degree of trust. We would have challenging conversations, but the priority was the project and the team. And I knew the sponsor had my back.”

As seen in the disastrous payroll project for Queensland Health in 2010, the failure of a project can have far-reaching impacts. “Senior officers lost their jobs because almost 78,000 staff weren’t paid properly when the new payroll system was rolled out,” says Mandy. “What was meant to cost $125 million ended up costing taxpayers around $1.2 billion. These are important projects that require expert project managers.”

“It’s part of the project manager’s job to make the project sponsor’s job as easy as possible.”
– Mandy Hill, Synergy Group

On the flip side when a project does go particularly well, Mandy always wants those involved to feel proud with their efforts, not exhausted or compromised by the journey to get there.

“At the end of some projects, even when you have met the outcome, the team can feel dissatisfied if things haven’t gone smoothly,” says Mandy. “One of my most rewarding projects was for the Department of Veterans’ Affairs when everyone as a team felt very proud of reaching our outcome. And, we received an Australia Day Award and Secretary’s commendation for not only the outcome but the collaborative way we achieved it.”

When a specialist is needed

According to Mandy, allocating generalists for specialised project management roles generates inefficiency, gaps in deliverables, increases risk, and ends up costing more due to all of these factors.

“Sponsors are doing their organisation a disservice if they don’t place a project management specialist in this specialised project management role,” explains Mandy. “Sometimes organisations put a ‘spare pair of hands’ or ‘trusted person’ into a project management role, but a lack of experience – especially combined with a distracted sponsor – can prove difficult for all involved.”

Depending on the size, risk and complexity of the project, a specialist will know the type of governance that is required, when and how to engage stakeholders, and how to critically review and report on progress.

“A lot of organisations have guidelines for effectively managing projects and there are better practice guides for project management, but unless you know these tools exist and how to tailor and use them, you can be flying blind,” says Mandy.

It’s also important to remember that a project manager doesn’t need to be an authority on your business domain or be a subject matter expert for that particular project. Collaboration with business experts is essential.

“For a payroll system project for instance, you may not need an expert in payroll or finance, but someone with project management experience in systems delivery. You can draw on subject matter experts from within your organisation.”

“Unless you know the better practice guides and tools, and how to tailor and use them, you can be flying blind.”

When to engage an external provider

While many organisations have great in-house skills and project managers can also be engaged via contract, for a complex project, there is a reach-back benefit when you engage an expert from a firm. “Somebody with deep skills and experience who can also access the entire firm’s expertise is very valuable,” says Mandy, who has worked in all types of positions both within government and as a consultant.

“Engaging an individual can be like contracting a lone ranger – the risk is in what they don’t know. When working with Synergy Group, it’s a shared risk that can be mitigated by the depth and breadth available within the firm.”

Projects are meant to succeed

Mandy says projects can, and should, run smoothly – they don’t need to be hit and miss. “If organisations invest early in project management expertise and sponsors are engaged, an authentic partnership between project sponsor and project manager can ensure complex transformation projects successfully meet targets.”