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What Every Project Needs to Succeed

By Eric Svaren, System Change Agent

Groupsmith, Inc.

At a large public institution, a high-profile team is on the verge of implosion. Morale is abysmal. The team has broken into factions. Because this team deals with the most complicated, high stakes situations in the institution, the team's problems have pushed people's level of stress through the roof. Gossip is rampant. People are afraid of being attacked. Some team members won't talk to one another, yet they have to work together constantly. There is very little trust.

The team lead is experiencing very high stress himself. He's desperate for help but doesn't have authority even to take the team off-site for a day. Moreover, he doesn't control his budget, scheduling, performance evaluations, or selection of team members. His boss, the unit director, has the authority but tends to shy away from confrontation, has trouble giving feedback, doesn't set and enforce performance standards, and dismisses problems as quickly as possible. Six months later, after several retreats and meetings as well as coaching for the team lead, there is little if any improvement.

I have observed dozens of large and small projects and initiatives in state and local government around the state, and many have fallen flat. There are many reasons, but one factor that more than any other determines whether project will succeed is how well the person-in-charge acts as a “sponsor.” In the example above, the unit director was not acting as the sponsor.

All failed projects have sponsors who would not or could not do all they needed to ensure success.

Many projects do not have strong sponsorship, which means that people don't have the support and guidance they need to deliver results. I call it “under-leadership,” a pattern that keeps teams, departments and whole enterprises trapped in low performance. In my view, people need strong leadership in order to focus their effort and energy on making something happen.

Unfortunately, many leaders don't know their role in making projects succeed. They don't know what sponsorship is. When they don't act as sponsors—or do only part of the job—they are practically guaranteeing that they will be disappointed with the results. I have learned that if you want the project to succeed, you must have strong sponsorship.

Consider this situation. Two departments in a large service district have been in a turf battle for as long as people can remember—10 years at least. A recent skirmish between the two departments resulted in a legal settlement with a third party that cost $500,000 to implement. The team has factionalized. Gossip is rampant. People are afraid of being attacked. Some of the players won't talk to one another, yet they have to work together constantly. There is very little trust.

The executive of one of the departments talks with his peer over the other department. Working together, they establish an interdepartmental team to work through issues and come up with a permanent solution to the problem. They meet with the team to lay out what they want, monitor the team's progress and intervene when problems require their attention. Six months later, the team presents a strategy that succeeds brilliantly—far exceeding anyone's expectations.

If you want your project to succeed like this one, we need to take a closer look at what sponsorship is and what it looks like in action.

What is Sponsorship?

Sponsorship refers to a set of clear, intensive, determined actions that the leader takes to focus attention and resources on achieving an objective. Sponsoring projects is an integral part of the leader's job.

Are you the sponsor?

  1. Do you have a clear vision of the results you want from the project?
  2. Do you have line authority over those who will implement the project?
  3. Can you provide the resources (time, people, money, political support) the project will need?

If you answer “yes” to all three questions, you are the sponsor. The project depends on you. Read on!

A sponsor is the leader who has the authority to make the project happen and oversees all the people who need to implement it.

The sponsor must be able to hold accountable (e.g., have hire/fire authority) the people who need to implement the project. The sponsor must also provide resources to the project. If the named sponsor does not have those powers, then they are not a real sponsor—and, I would submit, the project is very likely to fail.

A word of warning. It's common to underestimate who is involved in implementing a project. It's not just the project team. Anyone who has to change how they work is part of the implementation. If you're implementing a new financial system, anyone who will use it is an implementer. If you're doing Lean process improvement, it's anyone who is touched by the process. If someone is affected by a change, chances are they are an implementer.

Who's the sponsor? Simply put, the sponsor is the person who has the vision, line authority and resources. If the project involves the whole organization, the sponsor is the top executive (CEO) or elected official. In a strong mayor city, it's the mayor. In a council-manager city, it's usually the city manager. Likewise, in counties, it's either the elected county executive or the appointed county manager. (In the following sample diagrams, the blue-shaded area indicates all the people who are involved in implementing the project. A red arrow indicates who the sponsor is.)

project sponsor CEO

If the project affects just one department or division, the sponsor is the director of that department or division.

project sponsor director

If it's just one section or work group, it's the manager or supervisor of that unit.

project sponsor manager

Throughout this paper, I will distinguish between the “people-in-charge” and “sponsors.” People-in-charge are executives, directors, managers or supervisors. Sponsors are those people-in-charge who are fulfilling all the duties of sponsorship.

We will examine the main duties of the sponsor later. For now, let's look at what happens when you don't have sponsorship.

Seven Signs You Don't Have Sponsorship

Here are seven key signs that a project doesn't have adequate sponsorship.

  1. The person-in-charge behaves in a way that is counter to the goals of the project.

    I once worked on building trust among a group of managers in a department in a transportation agency. While in the meetings, Rex, the department head, was on his best behavior, but outside of meetings, he continued to say disparaging things about team members. The team members soon realized that Rex was not serious about improving trust and respect on the team—and they gave up on trying to build a team.

    The old saying, “Actions speak louder than words,” holds here. If the person-in-charge is saying one thing but doing another, people will know the project is doomed. And they won't invest in it. Most folks can tell when the person-in-charge is going through the motions.
  2. The person-in-charge fails to take opportunities to emphasize the importance of the effort. If she is not talking up the project and its importance in formal meetings and speeches, as well as casual conversation, the project isn't likely to go anywhere.
  3. The person-in-charge gets distracted from the effort by other priorities. In effect, she indicates that the project isn't as important as others.

    I was once doing team building with Deb and her team at a large public organization during the legislative session. In one of several team building sessions with Deb's team, I noticed that one of her people, Lisa, was reading draft legislation instead of participating in the discussion. Craig, one of the other team members, called Lisa out for her behavior. Instead of reinforcing the importance the team building effort, Deb said that she herself was more interested in legislation than what the team was working on.

    In a matter of 30 seconds, Deb not only undermined poor Craig, but she undid months of work, wasting a good deal of time, money and goodwill. As you would expect, the project didn't produce any meaningful results.
  4. The person-in-charge doesn't provide enough resources. The project doesn't have the time, money or people to give it a fighting chance. People are assigned to a new project without relief from their other responsibilities. Most projects seem to have no budget—even if a modest investment of money might return huge savings. Many projects I've seen are staffed with a single person—even in very large organizations. Resources are always finite, and there are always competing demands to contend with, but if the project is actually going to happen, it has to have adequate resources.
  5. The person-in-charge is unable or unwilling to hold individuals and teams accountable for their performance. He fails to recognize and thank people who demonstrate strong commitment. Conversely, the person-in-charge also needs to focus attention and time on people whose performance is hurting the project. If he tolerates inappropriate behavior or doesn't insist on results, others will notice and conclude that he is not serious.
  6. The person-in-charge does not meet and work with the project team. Most projects have a team of internal and external folks who are working to implement the project. Many people-in-charge seem too busy to ensure their team is getting enough guidance and support. They need to participate in clarifying the team's goals, weighing trade-offs, and troubleshooting. Those in charge need their project teams to be successful, and to be successful, project teams need access to their leaders.
  7. The person-in-charge tries to delegate their duties to someone else. While internal departments—like HR, IT, and finance—play an important role in helping to implement projects, they cannot take the place of the sponsor. The same is true when the outside consultant is made the de facto leader. The person with responsibility over all the people who need to implement the change must sponsor the project in order for it to succeed. Others don't have the power to focus people, provide resources, and deliver consequences.

What Effective Sponsors Do

  1. The sponsor relentlessly communicates a clear vision, direction and goals, as well as the importance and scope of the project. He or she uses every opportunity to emphasize the importance of the project and his or her support for it. In addition to making maximum use of their “bully pulpit,” effective sponsors use a project charter to capture the project's vision, purpose, results, scope, boundaries, resources, and timeframe. Charters take time to prepare and share, however they save a good deal of time, money and frustration in the long run.
  2. The sponsor understands he/she is asking a lot of people. They know that the project will affect both the organization and individuals in it. Projects demand high individual commitment and require sacrifices. Every change brings some kind of loss for people; a strong sponsor recognizes and honors those losses and makes efforts to alleviate them—while also continuing to advocate for the results the project is to achieve.
  3. Sponsors work to build key relationships. They talk with important players, listening and negotiating while focusing on the vision, direction and goals. Most projects succeed or fail based on personal relationships—especially with stakeholders, informal leaders, and others whose support and action is essential for success. Sponsors don't take relationships for granted.

    On a statewide reform initiative, I saw a sponsor reach out to individual stakeholders to build rapport. She spent a lot of time on the phone listening to their needs and concerns, while also talking about the larger purpose and how their support and participation was crucial.
  4. The sponsor clarifies roles. Projects usually require changes in people's duties, work plans and decision making authority. In many efforts, these changes are ignored or denied, which leads to conflict, confusion, delays and rework. When that happens, momentum is lost. Knowing a successful project requires clarity (on direction) and alignment (among people), a strong sponsor proactively and constantly clarifies team members' roles, responsibilities and authority to make decisions.
  5. The sponsor ensures the project has adequate resources, including personnel, money and support. Since resources are always finite, this means it may be necessary for leaders to prioritize certain projects and place others on the backburner. When “everything is a priority,” you rarely see significant progress on anything.
  6. The sponsor proactively monitors the project. Projects often encounter unexpected problems and challenges. Good sponsors don't “take it on faith” that all is going well. Instead they doggedly follow the project to make sure it is making progress. When problems come up, they step in as needed.

    In a project meeting, I once got into a heated argument with a key director about the direction the project was taking and what to do next. Upon hearing about the kerfuffle, the sponsor immediately called me and the director to check-in and see what he needed to do to address the situation. Fortunately, we had already talked it through and reached a resolution. Although the sponsor's intervention was not needed in this situation, he powerfully signaled his commitment to the success of the project.
  7. The sponsor holds people accountable. This is one of the most important tasks of any leader. Holding people accountable means the sponsor is able and willing to provide candid feedback and deliver consequences (both positive and negative) when necessary. In one project I worked on, the sponsors added project outcomes to participants' annual performance expectations. When the leaders are unwilling to hold people accountable, they send the unfortunate message that avoiding conflict or tough feedback is more important than a successful project.
  8. The sponsor models tenacity and resilience. Sponsorship is often very difficult. This is especially true when the sponsor is leading a critical, high-profile project or significant organizational change (like a reorganization or budget cuts). This work calls on all the resources and skills the sponsor can muster. A sponsor is willing and ready to see the project through to completion, despite setbacks and challenges. They're in it for the long haul.

When a project has strong sponsorship, the leader and project team come to believe “failure is not an option” and that they have all they need to succeed.

A Word about Micromanagement

Many people-in-charge are under the mistaken impression that being a strong sponsor means that you are micromanaging. It's actually the opposite.

Being a sponsor means you are setting direction, defining boundaries, building political support and providing resources. In other words, you are making it possible for the project team to perform at its best. But you are not doing their work for them.

You are laying out the what, why and when, but not the how. The how you leave up to your project team. When you are clear about what you want and equip the team with the resources they need, they will perform for you. You won't need to constantly look over their shoulders and micromanage.

One project involved a very complicated technical problem. Some on the project team wished the sponsor would give them the answer, but the sponsor understood that he didn't know enough. However, he did know that he wanted the problem solved and he gave the team the time and resources to solve it—which they did. In this situation, the sponsor could not have micromanaged if he wanted to.

Micromanagement becomes a problem when the person-in-charge doesn't understand their critical role as a sponsor. When that happens, they do what is familiar to them—they dive into the weeds with the rest of the team.


In this paper, I've shared the core tasks sponsors must do in order for projects to succeed. In almost every situation where a project “goes off the rails,” there is something the sponsor has missed. A person-in-charge might be doing 60% of these tasks, but very few are doing 90% or higher. This is at the root of the problem of under-leadership.

For leaders who want high-performance organizations that deliver excellent results, working on becoming an effective sponsor is the place to start. Strong sponsorship makes the difference between truly successful initiatives and those that simply fade away.

MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.

About Eric Svaren