One of the most important, but most neglected roles in business systems implementation projects, is that of the project sponsor. If you are embarking on any major project, the project sponsor is a role that needs to be considered carefully.
An active sponsor will make a world of difference to the success or failure of your project. The sponsor needs to be someone who has the will, energy and ability to lead and mediate as well as remove obstacles for the project team.
Let’s say you are the project sponsor. To be effective, you must be visible and supportive of the project team and help them remove obstacles. Your ultimate goal is to lead and support them to success. The role involves a (not inconsiderable) number of tasks and requires you to step up and lead by example.
How can you set the standard for great project sponsorship?
- Make decisions in a timely manner. Ensure business decisions around the project are made expeditiously, either by yourself, or the project team. Why? It’s a universal truth that delayed decisions often result in delayed projects. Make sure you have processes in place to support visibility of the decisions that need to be made, and make sure you are managing those decisions appropriately. In short – if you’ve got the information you need to make a decision, then don’t muck around making up your mind.
- Mediation. Business systems projects tend to surface issues around existing people and processes. This is because it is often necessary to ‘agree’ what a process is - or should be - in order to implement it in a new system. Project sponsors will often mediate cross-functional discussions and pull together groups of people to nut out business issues and conflicts. In short – you are going to feel like you are in a war zone at times, but hold strong.
- Motivate the team. Implementations are done by people, not machines. The people on implementation teams are usually still doing their usual 9-5 jobs as well as working the project – so they can become tired and disenchanted. As the sponsor, you should always scan and check the team’s motivation level. Be prepared to work in with your Organisational Change Management people to provide extra support to the team and raise their eyes above the horizon. Make time to be across what people are doing. Show an interest in them and the project. And when the going gets tough, be prepared to refocus your people on the positives and the end goals. Allow a budget to do some spontaneous things to show support and thanks when you need to. Whether your budget stretches from chocolates to spa days – be prepared to do something a little special for those people who are pushing themselves for the project. In short – remind your team that the end is in sight and keep them happy as they work towards it!
- Chair and attend appropriate meetings. There will be meetings. And more meetings. You’ll need to attend where needed and be an active participant – even though you’re busy. You should plan on chairing the steering committee meetings, and any potentially contentious meetings. Your team is really busy too – so if you decide to not turn up for meetings you can expect your team to interpret this as not caring, and you can expect that will flow through to project quality. In short – turning up to meetings will reinforce how important the project is.
- Recognise and remove obstacles in a timely manner. To spot obstacles you need to stay across the project. You can do this primarily through talking to people, project reporting, and project meetings. Removing obstacles can be anything from helping the team procure additional resource or budget, to working with them to change priorities because an unplanned acquisition means there is a change to the project scope. A good sponsor will keep the team involved and informed. In short – keep your eyes peeled for potential problems and act quickly to sort them out.
- Create productive vendor relationships. Your team will work with vendors at an operational level on the project. Day in, day out. Make sure you get to know your vendor’s senior people and escalation points. You should meet with them regularly, and be comfortable enough to pick up the phone and speak to your contacts at any time. These relationships can be incredibly helpful to the success of your project in so many instances – from change of business conditions right through to personality conflicts between the vendor’s people and your own. In short – don’t underestimate the value of a strong vendor relationship. You might need it.
- Manage the change request process. You need to walk the line between what’s needed and what’s wanted, ensuring change requests are properly assessed and approved, or rejected. You should expect your team to make recommendations and support those with a business case, but it’s usually up to the steering committee and project sponsor to sign those off. In short – be prepared to make some hard calls. And to back up your decision with good business reasons.
The role of project sponsor can feel thankless. But if you understand in advance what’s involved, and take ownership of the decisions and actions that come with the role, it can make the difference between a mediocre outcome, and a highly successful one.
by Rebecca Rutherford