When Good Sponsorships Go Bad
When an operations executive at Heartland Payment Systems set out to sponsor a software development project, there was trouble in the beginning. He made plans to hold a long series of meetings with the development team to map out every aspect of the new software. Once this planning work was done, he expected that the software team would go off and build the application and bring back a fully functional version for him to test.
There was only one problem: Heartland is an agile development shop. "He came in hoping and thinking it was going to be this great and wonderful plan and he would get one big sign-off, and then have a dedicated group of people working on it," says Kris Herrin, Heartland's CTO. "That didn't align with our culture in IT. The reality was, he was going to be using leveraged resources who would be hopping in and out of his project, as well as some dedicated resources." Working this way on multiple projects at once helps the Heartland team keep the development pipeline full, he adds.
The vast majority of executive sponsors are bad at this role, according to a recent Standish Group survey of CIOs. And those who have problems fall into one of two categories, according to Standish Chairman Jim Johnson. Some are what he calls "mother hens" -- they hover over a project, wanting to manage every detail. Others are "deadbeat dads" -- they agree to sponsor a project but then pay scant attention to it.
Given the pressures on most executives' schedules, the second scenario is more common, and it can be a huge problem. "This is why you need to be very explicit up front about the time commitment you're asking," says David Ladek, global IT business alliance partner at CH2M Hill. "Then you can at least say, 'We agreed to this. Will you be able to help me? And if not, do you mind if I engage somebody else?' You have to have the backbone to do that, and every good executive sponsor will respect it."
Many neglectful executive sponsors will gracefully step aside at this point. "But there are always ones who won't, and then you have to figure out what to do," Ladek says. "That's a big blow."
The mother-hen scenario can be even trickier. "You might want to make that person more busy doing stuff that will help the project," Johnson says. "A lot of projects can use a true evangelist, so making that person a spokesperson for the project might help." And he recommends creating a chain of command so that the mother hen doesn't need to make every decision -- "just the critical ones."
Sometimes, the executive sponsor dislikes the project itself. "That may not be explicit," says project management consultant Tres Roeder. "They usually don't go into a meeting and say, 'I don't like this!' " So if your antennae are telling you a project's sponsor is resistant, make sure to explore why that might be and address any concerns he or she may have. "More often than not," says Roeder, "it's a reasonable concern." The project may be distracting the person's team, or it might negatively impact his part of the organization.
And then there are sponsors like the Heartland operations exec who simply don't understand what the job entails. For them -- and for all executive sponsors -- a little education can be a big help. For example, Herrin asked that executive to take a brief course in the agile methodology. The executive "learned what the different roles in agile do and what it means to groom a backlog," he says. "He actually got certified as a scrum project owner."
Thanks to the training, the executive sponsor changed his approach and the project was a huge success. "We built it, start to finish, in under 12 months," Herrin says. "We rolled it out for adoption and lots of users love it." And the operations exec has become an effective sponsor for other projects, he adds. "It took a little shift in mindset, but he's now a proponent of agile and of getting things done faster."
— Minda Zetlin