The Role of the Executive Project Sponsor

One of the prestigious series of executive briefings by the Financial Times. It is written on the same set of principles and practice as the Project Workout and is the ideal companion for the senior executive.

    “Now we understand what we need to do, please
     tell the Project Sponsors what they need to do.”

Please note this book is currently out of print. It will be rewritten and released soon in another format. Until then, please don’t hesitate to contact me if you need a copy.

This is the most frequent questions I hear, when faced with a room full of hard-nosed, experienced project managers. No matter how well trained or experienced the project managers are, corporate objectives will never be achieved if there is not someone leading and directing the change. This is the tough challenge faced by the people this briefing is directed at: the Project Sponsors . Nicolo Machievelli said nothing is more perilous than creating a new order and this is as true today as it was back in 1515 when he published “The Prince”. He continues by neatly summarising an eternal situation:

    “And it ought to be remembered that there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. Because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new. This coolness arises partly from fear of the opponents, who have the laws on their side, and partly from the incredulity of men, who do not readily believe in new things until they have had a long experience of them. Thus it happens that whenever those who are hostile have the opportunity to attack they do it like partisans, whilst the others defend lukewarmly, in such wise that the prince is endangered along with them.”

Most organisations have now come to realise, in today's faster moving, integrated world, the traditional functional hierarchy, with its line command structure is inappropriate. But many who realise this, haven't done anything about it! Why? Could it relate to the fact that many of the current leaders reached their positions through the rough and tumble ladder of just such structures, with their interdepartmental rivalries and politics? It is a safe place for them, simply because it is familiar and they know how to work within it. However the “safe and familiar” place may not be the best place from which to direct and manage a modern organisation or major change.

The perceived “unsafe” place to be, is in a situation where you are trying to “create a new order”, working with and across many departments where that organisation is primarily functionally managed. It takes great courage to move out of the safety zone and into a new cross-functional, benefits-driven project world. However, even in a more fluid, environment, leading change can be just as fraught, it's just that one dimension of organisational politics has been removed or reduced. You will still need to energise your stakeholders, win round the doubters and create an environment for delivery.

Whether you are in a functional hierarchy, or a cross-functional role driven organisation, you will have to draw on all your personal leadership qualities. If you are really serious about being a “senior manager”, vice president, or CEO, one of the skills you need is the ability lead change and this is where the role of Project Sponsor comes in. Leading beneficial change may not feel safe, but it is certainly the right place to be: when an organisations fails no where is safe - it is too late. Can you afford to ignore that?


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