Do poor project sponsors drive failure?

I was speaking at a PMI conference early in Sweden in March, which gave me the opportunity to sit in on a number of other sessions. This one is all about programme and project sponsorship. It is a topic close to my heart and one I have blogged on before and no doubt will again . . . but is is a topic that business leaders actually care about?

In programmes and projects, sponsorship is not like sponsoring Tom to run a Marathon. Do too many business leaders believe it is someone else's job?

In programmes and projects, sponsorship is not like sponsoring Tom to run a Marathon. Do too many business leaders believe it is someone else’s job?

On the point of sponsorship, here are the key messages Peter Taylor gave out at his presentation on sposorship:

  • 85% of organisations had sponsors in place
  • 83% of organisations don’t train/support/guide sponsors
  • 100% of respondents believed that having a good sponsor was key to project success.

PMI’s recent Pulse of the profession showed that those organisations with active sponsors are more likely to have better project outcomes. This is supported by Colin Price’s research (McKinsey). Standish believes ‘The most important person in the project is the executive sponsor. The executive sponsor is ultimately responsible for the success and failure of the project’. I agree.
BUT most spend business leaders spend less than 5% of their time on sponsor related activity, yet this is all about making change happen – leading change. . . . and mismanaging change is the commonest reason CEOs get fired.
If you look at project failure, six reasons are cited and the top FOUR of those come under the accountability of the sponsor.

  • 40% Unrealistic goals
  • 38% Poor alignment of project and organisation objectives
  • 34% Inadequate human resources
  • 32% Lack of strong leadership
  • 21% Unwillingness of team members to identify Issues
  • 19% Ineffective risk management

So despite all this wealth of research and learning, many business leaders continue to ignore the issue or treat it informally. Everyone says they believe it is critical to project success and yet:

  • Sponsors are not ‘trained’ to be effective
  • Sponsors do not have the ‘time’ to be effective
  • Sponsors are just expected to ‘know’ how to do the job.

Is that right?
Is it even worth bothering about?

Peter then showed some broad-brush estimates of the value of good sponsorship:

  1. Meeting Project Goals +29% variance with good sponsorship in place
  2. Project Failure -13% variance without good project sponsorship in place

So if you have a £1bn portfolio, the range of benefits and costs is:
+ £290m
– £130m
Peter argues that those figures are certainly worth thinking about.I certainly agree. I also wonder that if senior leaders are only spending 5% of their time on sponsorship, what are they actually doing and who do they think is looking after the future of the business?

You can see Peter’s paper here – Project managers are from Mars, project sponsors from Venus

About Robert Buttrick
Robert Buttrick is the author of the Project Workout. He has been providing advice and guidance since the publication of the first edition of his best-selling “flagship” book, the Project Workout in 1997 and now its 4th edition. The principles laid out in the publications, take a holistic view, ensuring that culture, systems, processes and accountabilities are mutually compatible. The book has been translated into French, Korean, Chinese, Russian and Romanian . . . but not yet into Latin! Robert received a Distinguished Service Certificate from BSI for services to national and international project management standards; he is a Member of the Chartered Institute of Marketing, Chartered Engineer and an Honorary Fellow of the Association for Project Management. He currently works as a consultant and is a Visiting Teaching Fellow at the University of Warwick.

2 Responses to Do poor project sponsors drive failure?

  1. Hi Robert,

    Not to sound skeptical – but where did Peter Taylor get his stats? There are lots of numbers in there but there isn’t a single reliable source of these numbers.

    Additionally, the “Executive Level Non-Support” is by far the most important reason on why projects fail (as described in this 2008 post: http://www.pmhut.com/why-projects-fail-2 ). That reason is not even mentioned anywhere in the 6 failure reasons above!

    • I believe Peter used the following sources: Project Management Institute, Inc. Pulse of the Profession™, March 2013 and CHAOS Manifesto: The Year of the Executive Sponsor (Standish) 2012 and PricewaterhouseCoopers LLC: Insights and Trends: Current Portfolio, Programme, and Project Management Practices 2012 – The third global survey on the current state of project management. I picked these up from his paper, which is linked from the blog.
      I think Peter’s analysis supports the post you referred to in 2008 . . . not a lot has changed! I agree, “Executive level non-support” is a good summary of the four symptoms highlighted. I published a FT Executive Briefing on the role of the sponsor in 2005 in an attempt to raise awareness, but I believe the issue still persists.

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