Opinion by Bart Perkins

6 ways to cope with a resistant sponsor

resistant executive
Credit: Jamie Eckle

An executive sponsor who is out to undermine a project can be very dangerous

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A few years ago, the chief administrative officer at a multinational enterprise realized that, despite the extensive benefits projected, support for a new ERP system was not unanimous. In order to strengthen commitment, he forced the heads of finance, HR and manufacturing to sponsor the project within their respective areas. While the heads of finance and HR were enthusiastic about better automation, the VP of manufacturing liked the current systems and saw no need for ERP. Over the next few months, he publicly supported the project while simultaneously creating significant project roadblocks.

That VP of manufacturing was what I refer to as a resistant executive sponsor. Resistant sponsors can be very dangerous, becoming a burden to the project team and causing missed deadlines, budget overruns and even project failure.

At the other extreme of executives sponsors and their level of support for project teams are the enthusiastic (clearly the most desirable), and in between are the reluctant (supportive but already over-committed) and the minimally involved (really don’t care unless they sense a career-limiting disaster).

Reluctant and minimally involved sponsors may simply be distracted (by aging parents, sick spouses, problem children, etc.) and fail to provide leadership, but they usually don’t interfere. Resistant sponsors tend to be defensive and even aggressive, perhaps even launching attacks within their project. They may be afraid their empire will shrink if the project is successful, or fear being held accountable for the business case benefits. They may disagree with basic project goals, or use the project as a pawn in a political battle.

Resistant sponsors may be blatant or passive-aggressive in their efforts to block progress. Their techniques can include these:

  • Assigning inappropriate team members. Business areas that will undergo major change need a business project leader. Resistant sponsors avoid identifying anyone as long as possible. When pressed, they choose a weak or inexperienced project leader whom they can easily intimidate, control and manipulate.
  • Avoiding decision-making. Business process redesigns require a large number of trade-offs. Resistant sponsors specialize in ducking/bucking changes to critical business processes, often demanding time to consider before making any decision.
  • Second-guessing decisions. Resistant sponsors may direct their staff to make all but the most critical decisions, and then question virtually every proposed change. One resistant sponsor even stated, “All decisions are only ‘draft’ until I sign off on them.” Even when a resistant sponsor authorizes a decision, he or she may revisit it months later.
  • Creating new requirements. Resistant sponsors often demand out-of-scope functionality or additional documentation after requirements have been finalized, disrupting the established work plan.
  • Becoming unavailable. Despite repeated invitations to attend design reviews, milestone checkpoints or other critical meetings, resistant sponsors inevitably discover a conflicting appointment. This slows progress and gives the resistant sponsor an excuse to reopen decisions later. The resistant sponsor may also use this opportunity to play the blame game and launch brutal personal attacks on project staff, claiming not to have been appropriately informed.

Resistant sponsors can have extremely negative effects on project success and can demoralize even the most confident project teams. Insecure team members sometimes depart rather than work in a toxic project atmosphere. Others may respond by asking the sponsor to make every decision, copying the sponsor on every email and making disparaging remarks behind the sponsor’s back. While these coping mechanisms may help team members feel better, they don’t help solve the underlying problem.

When dealing with a resistant sponsor, try these strategies:

  • Engage allies. Ask supporters across the organization to communicate the project’s value. Even the most stubbornly resistant sponsor finds it hard to continue destructive behavior in the face of enterprisewide support.
  • Maintain professionalism. When responses are personal, the situation often spins out of control and leaves little or no room for compromise. Although it is easy to blame an unreasonable or incompetent individual, it is much more useful to blame the process and seek or offer solutions.
  • Engage the resistant sponsor informally. Find someone outside the project team whom the resistant sponsor respects. Have that person ask the sponsor pertinent questions about the project. If asked enough penetrating questions, the sponsor may modify her participation or approach.
  • Document carefully. Resistant sponsors may disguise themselves as supporters who simply want additional information. Good project management practices require the project team to document agreements, open issues, action items, etc. With a resistant sponsor, make sure that all documentation is timely and overly thorough.
  • Keep the resistant sponsor informed. Never blindside a resistant sponsor — your job may be on the line. When difficult decisions are needed, seek the resistant sponsor’s advice privately, prior to the formal meeting. Previewing issues privately makes the resistant sponsor feel important and may result in less time being wasted during project team meetings.
  • Let the resistant sponsor self-destruct. This is a risky, last-ditch effort, based on the hope that the rest of the organization will recognize the resistant sponsor’s substandard efforts and poor decisions, culminating in removing the culprit either temporarily or permanently.

Resistant sponsors are all too common in corporate life. Nobody wants to work with them, fearing their project may be killed by the sponsor’s stranglehold. Make every effort to minimize the damage a resistant sponsor can do, but don’t expect to see a lot of change in commitment or participation. It is highly unlikely a resistant sponsor will ever become enthusiastic, but if you can maneuver your sponsor from resistant to minimally involved, it may be enough to allow your project, and your project team, to get enough oxygen to survive.

Bart Perkins is managing partner at Louisville, Ky.-based Leverage Partners Inc., which helps organizations invest well in IT. Contact him at BartPerkins@LeveragePartners.com.

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