Humility and Sponsorship in Projects

Many of us are familiar with the observation, often put forward by an analyst or pundit of some description, that many projects fail to achieve what was intended. I do not pretend to be a breakthrough thinker on the topic - big project failures have been studied for decades. They are expensive, they cause significant disruption inside organizations, and they make provocative headlines.

A colleague, Rob Goatham, has even developed a catalogue of project failures (Robert Goatham - see also the Catalogue of Catastrophe - Despite our growing experiences and regardless of the ongoing concern, we are able to add a few new catastrophes to the list every year. I will address in greater detail the role of CMCs in addressing large project success in a future blog, but I would like to consider the importance of another player in the large project cast.

The profound continuous disruption caused by dynamic external forces affects all organizations and has changed our perceptions of effective leadership. Project sponsors play a major role in the positioning, designing, resourcing, and planning of a project and play a significant role in implementing the results. While our focus is on the controllable inside a project from an external consultant’s perspective, a project sponsor has a significant influence on what is uncontrollable (from an external consultant’s perspective). An effective sponsor can tip the balance towards a successful outcome if they manage a different set of factors that affect projects.

Where Do Projects Come From?

Performance shortfalls resulting from market and societal changes can drive organizations to formulate and articulate remedies and ideas powerful enough to become project charters. The origins of a project might emerge, at one extreme, from insights arising through the course of a methodical, evidence based management process (data-driven operational insight) or at the other extreme, from the imagination and vision (ego-driven opinion) of a determined leader.

Why Do Big Projects Fail?

There are many reasons for project failure, which might be attributable to any single or combination of causal factors under the control of a project lead:

  • Engagement, teamwork, and communications
  • Skills, knowledge, and competency
  • Risk and/or quality
  • Underestimation and analysis
  • Market and strategy

When a sponsor perspective is adopted, another set of factors related to the organization, to planning, to leadership and to the organization’s governance, come into play. The sponsor must control their ego while shaping and disseminating a broad vision. Shaping and influencing culture and individual behavior enables implementation of the results. These factors can have a significant impact and are not so easy to measure. If the organizational culture is strong and is aligned with the project, the central idea, or end state vision of the outcome drives hundreds of enabling decisions that lie beneath the surface. The decisions are predictable to a degree because they are coherent with the culture and driven to evolve that culture. There are hundreds of hands who easily perceive and integrate and there are strong community corrective signals when deviation occurs.

Reading Uncertainty

Perhaps the most important decision to be made by a sponsor is his or her read on the stability of the external environment. The sponsor should have the capacity to wisely gauge and interpret the complexity of factors that may have a bearing on a decision to create an initiative or a project charter.
Big investment projects belong in ordered environments where most factors are known because cause and effect relationships are repeatable, perceivable and predictable. When an environment is knowable and cause and effect is separated over time and space, systems thinking, scenario planning, analytical or reductionist initiatives, and projects make sense and contribute to establishing a greater sense of order.

While an idea may appear to make sense, the organization may be in an environment that is unordered. There may be more that is unknown or the landscape may be in constant change or flux with many competing ideas. While an initiative may sound like a good way to rectify or impose order, it may make more sense to have exploratory initiatives, experiments, and probes (risk mitigation) until a pattern emerges that can be translated into a response (initiative or project). The environment may be chaotic with no clear cause effect relationships, a high degree of turbulence and not surprisingly, a lot of tension. In project speak, one can expect a lot of changes to the specifications creating a wonderful milieu for major scope creep. Again, not the right circumstance to formulate an initiative or project – best not to look for right answers yet.

Shaping Culture

To be fair, regardless of origin of a project, enlightened sponsors and skilled project leaders are navigators who have learned how to manage within the culture boundaries of the firm - intelligently tweaking the gap between management preferences and staff productivity by establishing imperatives, shaping expectations and providing timely feedback. It is a lot easier if there is a widely understood cultural foundation, the project honors that culture, individuals who model appropriate behavior are given leadership roles and the following are firmly defined and put in place:

  • Imperatives are the core values that the team deeply believe in and thus serve as the foundation for all decisions. Expressed differently, beneficial cultures form when leaders have clear imperatives – giving staff a frame of reference within which to work – they act like a compass to which everyone can align (priorities, expectations, and how performance will be assessed).
  • Expectations (built on the imperatives) are communicated to staff – it is what management wants from them and the standards they are to achieve. They are the communications and subtle interactions from management that provide the framework for norms and behaviors that are deemed to be the benchmark of performance.
  • Feedback keeps the message of expectations alive. Positive reinforcement helps encourage the continuation of desired behaviors and constructively expressed and carefully timed, guidance helps coach and develop staff abilities where improvement is possible or required.
    If aligned, these elements can serve to effectively transfer preferences to daily behaviors, coherent decisions across a broad spectrum of activities and ultimately produce anticipated outcomes.

Leadership sets the tone in organizations – they serve as the compass for the entire team. Project success is thus affected by the attitudes and behaviors being modeled by sponsors and project leaders. Some positive models might include: excellence (high expectations); customer focus; accountability; teamwork; and participatory management. Some negative models might include: sales centricity; behaviors that are politically, hype or fear driven; exploitative, and indifferent or arrogant behavior. A strong relationship between an organization’s sponsor and a project lead is thus critical.

Hands On Change

If you accept that the degree of stability (or risk) in the external environment should help determine the elasticity or degree of flexibility in the approach to the work and thus the design of the project, then the sponsor’s job description and personal qualities come into play.
The ability to effect change by identifying positive contributing behaviors, singling out strong behavior models in the organization and honoring an existing culture is a prerequisite skillset.

Leading change and the positioning of an idea and then shaping it into an initiative with some specific identified actions and ultimately translating these loose ideas into a project charter with widespread support, requires a heavy dose of humility to both recognize and make use of the organizational context to frame the project appropriately (positioning the project for success).

In addition, there are three other leadership skills:

  • A leaderful identity (focused on success and skilled at collaboration)
  • A deep skill set (stakeholder engagement, leading change, disciplined decision tools)
  • Strategic behaviors (building coalitions, effective and assertive communications)

None of this is possible unless the sponsor has credibility based upon demonstrated integrity, a compelling voice, a knack for articulating the obvious and the profound and finally, someone who sees the positive regardless of the situation.

Designing and Outsourcing

There are two other major roles played by the sponsor that have a bearing on success:

  • Defining the project - a design process instigated by the sponsor and contributed to by key members of a potential project team and others with a stake in the outcome provides an excellent starting point for a project charter tailored to the problem at hand. A sponsor has to shelve any notion that they have a pre-programmed answer, that they know it all because they have done it before or that they uniquely have the power to solve any problem faced by the organization.
  • Getting Value from External Consultants – a good sponsor will build on the work done to define and position the project by articulating the need for consulting services and the scope of the work. Involvement through a disciplined selection process, following the consulting process and managing the relationship/overseeing the engagement assures that the outcomes fit the organization culturally and meet expectations. In short, it becomes possible to integrate the work of external consultants into the work of an internal team.

Bottom line

Having a sponsor at the most senior levels of the organization who is open, well informed and engaged reduces the risks of failure considerably.
A humble, well informed, skilled, and engaged sponsor makes a significant contribution to project success.

Be sure to catch me speaking on this topic on May 26, 2015 at ProjectWorld*Business Analyst World.