The Project Sponsor – Project Manager Relationship. Butch & Sundance or Laurel & Hardy?


I describe the project structure as resembling an hourglass. The bottom half of the hourglass represents the project team of consultants and contractors delivering the project. The top half of the hourglass represents the organization that is investing in the project. At the neck of the hourglass are the project manager and project sponsor. I see them as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, back to back, with the project manager facing the project team and the project sponsor facing the investing organization.

That I see them as back to back is not meant to imply any lack of communication between them. Rather it is that the project manager’s primary focus is on ensuring that the project team deliver as required, and that the project sponsor’s focus is on coordinating the organization’s project stakeholders, such as marketing, HR, operations, finance etc. The Butch and Sundance image has them watching each other’s back, trusting each other with their lives (well careers anyway). They have a shared objective, depend on each other, but play different roles.

The flow of sand through the hourglass represents the flow of investment (information, time and cash) from the organization to the project. When the project is complete the hourglass is turned again and the benefits flow back from the project into the organization. The business case will require that the benefits outweigh the investment. The primary responsibility of the project sponsor is the project business case. In the beginning the project sponsor develops and defines the project to bring about change, as required by the organization’s strategy. He or she obtains investment authority, based on a healthy business case with a robust NPV (Net Present Value). Thereafter the sponsor is the guardian of the organization’s investment, rigorously assessing any changes, delays or cost increases to check that the business case remains sound. This guardianship role continues throughout the project, but once the sponsor has appointed the project manager, and is satisfied that he or she fully understands the requirement, the sponsor should focus on benefits realization. There will be myriad changes required within the organization to absorb the project deliverables and realize the benefits. For example if the project is the installation of a new, automated production facility then the business case may depend upon a reduction in staff headcount. The sponsor needs to orchestrate this with the HR and operations departments at the appropriate point in the project.

So where do Laurel and Hardy come into it? It’s that phrase “That’s another fine mess you’ve gotten me into!” Projects don’t always go according to plan and they don’t always deliver value. Often it starts with a communication problem, a misunderstanding. As things start to go wrong, Stan will try to fix the problem himself. Next he might resort to covering up the problem and hoping Oli doesn’t notice. It never works. The problems go from bad to worse until crisis hits and “That’s another fine mess you’ve gotten me into!”

Project managers will move heaven and earth to deliver their project on time and budget, but sometimes events conspire to make this near impossible. The project sponsor must judge whether the business case is best served by cancelling the project or completing it. Cancelling a project might feel like a failure but it’s a lot better to do it early, with a relatively small lost investment, than to cancel it late with a massive one.

I think that many of the problems with the project manager – sponsor relationship stem from a lack of understanding of the sponsor’s role, sometimes by the project manager and very often by the sponsor. So I want to close this post with a short summary of the sponsor’s role, illustrated with some quotes from the heroes of our title.

Project definition – creating the vision

The sponsor identifies and defines the project that will bring about the change that is required to deliver the organization’s strategy. The project sponsor must communicate a vision of this to the project manager and ensure that he or she clearly understands what is required.

Butch Cassidy: [to Sundance] Boy, I got vision, and the rest of the world wears bifocals.

Owning the business case

The project sponsor develops the business case, weighing costs against benefits and secures authority from the organization for investment. Thereafter the sponsor is the guardian of that investment.

Stan Laurel: [ to Oliver Hardy] Well, if you caught a fish … then whoever you sold it to, they wouldn’t have to pay for it … then the profits would go to the fish.

Benefits realization

Almost as soon as the project manager is aboard and fully briefed on the project vision and the constraints of the business case, the sponsor’s attention should turn to planning for the realization of the project benefits. This does require planning, it can’t be left to prayer.

Card player #1: Well, looks like you just about cleaned everybody out, fella. You haven’t lost a hand since you got to deal. What’s the secret of your success?

Sundance Kid: [pause] Prayer.

First published on # PMChat

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About David West

I'm a Civil Engineer, Project and Risk Manager with an MBA. I will be using this blog to share my thoughts about a number of subjects of interest to me. I hope that you will find them interesting too.

Posted on August 13, 2012, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

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