The project owner / sponsor is often critical to the success of the project - whether they know it or not.  They can sometimes find themselves responsible for a major corporate initiative, yet have little or no training as to what their role actually is.

I remember as if it were yesterday...   The previous night I had shone the beacon onto the clouds just as they did in the comic books. The following day he simply appeared in my office.  There he was, resplendent in his super-hero getup, toned, tanned, blue hair and perfect teeth. His cape billowing in the overactive air-conditioning.  I desperately needed his advice, but hardly knew where to start.

“I know what you’re thinking,” he rumbled in his impressive baritone. “Did I become Sponsorman because of my impressive physique and superior intellect, or was it the result of some strange cataclysmic event.”  Actually, I was wondering why superheroes wear their undies on the outside, but his question seemed a better place to start. He smiled knowingly as he sat on the corner of my desk. "You know, in some ways I owe everything to my arch-enemy, Dementor".
I shuddered at the name. Dementor – the sponsor from hell, for I believed that it was none other that had recently wreaked havoc with our own project.  Somehow he had found a way to work his evil ways with our key executives. 

Sponsorman told me that in a curious twist of fate, he had started work at the same organization as Dementor. “At first, we didn’t realize the extent of his evil” he said. “We thought he was just a little… well, incompetent.  Not even when he started covering up problems on the project.  Only when it was too late, when the damage was done did we understand. You see, he misled us right from the start about the potential benefits, and we didn't think to check.  After all, he was an executive reporting to the CEO.”

He went on to list other failings that, in retrospect they should have recognized. I felt a chill as he recounted Dementor’s litany of sins:

  • On the rare occasions that he actually read project reports, he took ages to respond
  • He encouraged everyone to relax – the deadline was ‘miles away’
  • He accepted invitations to project meetings, but if he actually turned up, was totally unprepared
  • He appointed juniors to conduct quality reviews, and made sure they knew what outcomes were acceptable
  • If he recognized the growing morale problem in the project team, he did nothing to address it until team members started to leave
  • When it became obvious that money was tight, ‘solved’ the problem by scrapping documentation and training.
I groaned out loud, recognizing the symptoms. “At least he didn’t allow constant scope changes” .

“I was just about to get to that,” he said, giving me a look that clearly showed he was not used to being interrupted.  “Needless to say soon after the project went belly-up the wretch deserted us. No doubt he had already chosen his next victim.  It took years before we dared take on another major project, which is where I came in”.

As it turned out, Sponsorman – in his secret identity as a mild mannered executive, was a natural leader.  From his early days as captain of the school football team, through university, people naturally looked to him for leadership. So it was no surprise that after the previous project fiasco, he was asked to lead the next initiative.  To their utter amazement he refused.  “Don’t get me wrong, I desperately wanted this project to succeed.” He told me. “But how could I help when I had no idea of what was required from me”?

In one of those coincidences that only happens in stories like this, his company had a project office, and had just developed a short education course for sponsors. “The project office referred to this as the ‘Idiots Guide to Project Management’, although I wasn’t supposed to know that” He winked.

“Before I was appointed as sponsor, I was given an opportunity to find out what was expected of me.  I was shown what happens in a project – who does what, when, and why.  I was also given a heads up on common problems, and how they could be avoided.”

“I had a good look at what had gone wrong with the previous project, and spoke to colleagues about the role.  That’s how I learned about those aspects of project management that seemed to be some sort of secret back then.” Seeing the look of puzzlement on my face, he explained that he was talking about the ‘soft’ project management disciplines such as change management, risk management and quality assurance. 

“Surely,” I ventured, “it’s the responsibility of the project manager to look after those things?”

He shifted from the edge of my desk to strike a heroic pose near the window.  “Absolutely.  The project manager must be able to manage these things. But a good sponsor..” he paused to make sure that I hadn't missed the emphasis. “A good sponsor needs to have a working knowledge of each of these aspects. He – or she – needs to understand the concepts of project management. You know, how it all hangs together, and what has to be done at what time.”

“So that’s the secret?” I urged.

He chuckled.  “There is no secret.  The information is available; you just have to take the time to find it.  Many sponsors think that it is enough that you are an expert in your own field, and that you have a vested interest in the project outcome -  Hah!”

“That is just the beginning.  It’s like any other aspect of business.   When you’re about to invest millions of dollars, you leave nothing to chance.”

I tried to think about how this applied in my own situation. We had sponsors who seldom spoke to their own project managers.  They were often preoccupied with other priorities, and when it came to allocating resources, they chose staff based purely on their availability. Strangely this seemed almost inversely proportional to what was required. Then there was one who fancied herself as a project manager. Without any training or experience, she over-rode project decisions, was involved in the most minute detail, and generally became far too close to provide an objective overview. I suggested that this must surely this must be the work of the sponsor from hell.

“As evil as that dastardly fiend is, the truth is often more simple.  It sounds like your sponsors just don’t know what is expected of them, and so they are trying to manage as they would in their usual roles.  Partly ignorance, partly laziness – and possibly just a little too proud to ask for help.”

“Then again, it could be Dementor’s "S-Ray" gun. Hard to tell the difference sometimes”. His mischievous grin left me in some doubt as to whether he was altogether serious. 

I was furiously scribbling notes as he spoke, and remembered that I had jotted down a question to ask.  “Can you give me any specific tips for a new sponsor?”

He paused only momentarily. “Other than what I have already told you, just this;  Choose your project manager very carefully, and cultivate that relationship as if the very future of your business depends on it.  It probably does.”

I scribbled this down verbatim. “Well, I’d like to thank…”

But he was gone.  The setting sun reflecting on the glass-walled building next door momentarily blinding me.  The light faded and from somewhere, what sounded like a theme song swelled into the office.  My secretary breathlessly swept into the office.  “Who was that man”?