Surviving the Sponsor Exit

Here's how to keep your project on track if your executive sponsor leaves.

"Of all the items that can go wrong on a project, the one the project manager has least control over is the sponsorship," says Gopal Kapur, president of the Center for Project Management in San Ramon, Calif. Surveys show that when an IT project goes bad, there's a good chance that loss of the business sponsor was at least partly to blame.

The project sponsor is the executive or manager with the fiscal authority, political clout and personal commitment to see a project through. But what if you lose him to another job or another company? What if he's fired, loses interest and gradually withdraws, or was never really on board from the beginning? There are plenty of things you can do to keep the project on track, and if you've got skills and moxie, you might even turn the crisis into an opportunity. Here's how:

Plan ahead. Make sure your project has widespread support in the company. "Do enough homework on the front end so more than just the sponsor believes in the project," says Catherine Tomczyk, a project manager at First Data Corp. in Greenwood Village, Colo. Otherwise, she says, if the sponsor leaves, "you no longer have any backing, and your project can go down the tubes."

Prepare to escalate. Talk with your sponsor early about the procedure you'll follow if you're not getting the support you need from him. Then write it up for the project notebook and give a copy to him. "That protects the project manager and warns the sponsor," Kapur says. Tomczyk includes an escalation policy in her project plan and communicates it to everyone involved. "I list who I'll be going to if I don't get an answer from a sponsor in 48 hours," she says.

Use it. When a sponsor underperforms, don't back down. Put the plan in action. "I usually end up going to the [senior vice president] level once," Tomczyk says. "Then everybody gets it."

Consider euthanasia. When the sponsor leaves, assess the political situation. "If the project begins falling apart because one person left, was it really a valid project?" asks Jim Highsmith, director of the agile project management practice at Cutter Consortium in Arlington, Mass. If other executives start backing away, the project may have been the sponsor's pet rather than a true business priority. In that case, he says, you're better off killing it than letting it drag you down.

Use your resources. If the project is legit, ask the outgoing sponsor to arrange a three-way meeting with the incoming sponsor to pass the torch and get the new guy up to speed on project issues. If the sponsor has left abruptly, slow the project down and call an emergency meeting with key stakeholders, your project steering committee and your project champion to recruit a new one. Make it clear, Kapur says, that without a sponsor, the project will have to be suspended or canceled within a few weeks as your team reaches points where a sponsor is needed.

Resist newbies. Be wary of a sponsor who is new to the company. He may lack the political clout you need or have other fish to fry. "If you're in a critical phase and your project isn't the highest thing on the new sponsor's priority list, that can be very difficult," says Highsmith.

Require a "single throat." Don't allow your steering committee to take over sponsorship. "Often nobody really has that 'single throat' accountability -- the person you grab at the throat if something goes wrong," Tomczyk says. "If a group makes the decisions, trying to get them to come to consensus can immobilize a project."

Step up. "Don't go into victim mode. Save that for your therapist," Kapur says. Assess your own skills and offer to take on as many sponsorship duties as you can to extend the project for a few weeks while a sponsor is found, he advises. "Just tell [stakeholders and others] there are four options: suspend, cancel, get another sponsor, or delegate authority to me, and I can begin to do these things." Then find a top-level stakeholder as a mentor and ask for help.

Make it official. If you take over as interim sponsor, don't just sidle into the job. Make it official. Otherwise, Kapur says, "people will ask who died and made you the king, and they won't listen to you."

Re-form, restorm. No matter who takes over as sponsor, kick off the project again. In the project lexicon of "form, storm, norm and perform," Tomczyk explains, a team forms, then goes through a "storming" period where people figure out their roles, then normalizes and begins to perform. When a sponsor leaves, team members may expand their roles to compensate.

Virginia Robbins, director of IT at Chela Financial Resources Inc. in San Francisco, saw this when a woman on the team began taking over some duties that a subpar sponsor wasn't doing. When a new sponsor arrived, Robbins re-formed her team, and the new sponsor re-established the original roles. "He had to look her in the eye and state that he would take on these duties," she recalls. "Then we had to reaffirm the vision for the project. He assessed the work, refocused the folks and cleared the decks." Re-forming the team "feels like a waste of time," Tomczyk acknowledges, "but every time I've tried not to do it, I got burned."

Go for it. The loss of a sponsor gives the seasoned project manager a chance to stretch. "That's how promotions get done," Kapur says. "Step up to the plate, do a Hail Mary and see what happens. Otherwise you're losing a great opportunity."

Melymuka is a Computerworld contributing writer. Contact her at kmelymuka@yahoo.com.

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The Resourceful Project Manager

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