Project disaster alert – A disengaged project sponsor

iStock_000001804423Small business manProject disasters often start at the top – with the project sponsor. Sponsors rarely set out to be difficult, hard to get hold of or disengaged, but it often happens. Why is that?

There are a number of possible reasons. Here are some typical ones:

  • They are usually senior managers or executives and already have busy and demanding day jobs before they take on sponsorship of your project.
  • They have probably never been trained to be a project sponsor.
  • They don’t understand project management and may never have been involved in a project, never mind having run one.
  • They don’t understand the role they play and how vital it is.
  • Are they at the right level of seniority? Too junior and they won’t have the real authority and accountability to undertake the job and make the necessary decisions. Too senior and they won’t have the time or detailed business knowledge to make timely and effective contributions.
  • Are they accessible? As a project or programme manager I like – no, need! – to have direct access to my sponsor. I try to get two 30 minute slots a week in the diary where we can discuss the general progress and any issues or concerns I or the sponsor have. If both agree there is nothing to discuss, they can be cancelled, but I like to have them there in case. One programme I ran the PMO for had a senior executive as sponsor but the programme manager always had to go through his own line manager before he could get to the sponsor. As his line manager was responsible for a number of major programmes this added an unnecessary roadblock to effective communications with the sponsor.


lightbulb02Disaster avoidance


So we have identified a number of reasons why sponsors become disengaged. How to we prevent them or go about re-engaging the sponsor?

Your sponsor is your number 1 stakeholder and so should be the focus of your initial stakeholder engagement. Find out as much about them as possible:

  • What is their background, what experience do they have of projects and programmes.
  • What are they looking to get from the project. Try to understand their WiiFM factors – What’s in it For Me!
  • Get to meet them and push for the regular direct dialogue I described above. In those meetings set out what you need to get from them and why it is important.
  • If they are unfamiliar with projects, send them a copy of my Reference Guide for Project Boards (click the link, it’s free to download for registered readers of my blog/newsletter).
  • Lay out the project plan in a simple high level form and show the critical points when key decisions are required or their support will be critical. If there are clashes with their schedule this will highlight them and you can work on solutions now, rather than getting surprises later.

You are seeking to establish a rapport, an open channel of communications and above all else, trust. With your sponsor onside, tackling all the other signs of potential project disaster just became that little bit easier.

2 comments on “Project disaster alert – A disengaged project sponsor
  1. Do we really need to train people to be sponsors? Seems to me that what they need is an understanding that a project is a business investment.

    • admin says:


      In my experience sponsors very definitely need training. If they have even a rudimentary understanding of how a project should be run then they tend to be much more proactive in resolving issues relating to the project, promoting and championing the project, and heling the project manager get things done. Ignorance often leads to bad decisions, delays to critical decisions and unnecessary challenging and questioning of project proposals.

      I have known sponsors blindly demanding totally unrealistic fixed delivery dates and refusing to engage with the project manager about the valid reasons why they couldn’t be met. End result was having to replan the project several times over wasting huge amounts of effort to try and hit the early deadlines. The didn’t have the time or money to do it right but they ended up spending more and taking longer to do it several times over.


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