Dealing with a Demanding Project Sponsor

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Jim GrahamA Project Manager does not necessarily have the luxury of picking their project sponsor. At times the cards are dealt and you have to deal with a difficult sponsor or team.

Throughout my years as a project professional, I could name plenty of examples of “difficult sponsors”, such as; being indecisive, changing project timelines, changing the scope, avoiding responsibility (e.g., not making/delaying key decisions), unrealistic expectations, not providing the right resources… the list could go on!

So, what’s the best way to handle your difficult sponsor? From day one, build a strong partnership with the sponsor! Being honest with your stakeholders is the fist step in building the trust and credibility that will make difficult conversations a bit easier.  I have learned this lesson the hard way, as I was transitioned to a few projects that had been started by other PM’s. Those PM’s, once confronted with a difficult sponsor, cowered in fear of upsetting them. They would say “yes” to everything, essentially conforming to their customer’s indecisiveness. By doing this it builds a false foundation for the project and the team, and sets it up for failure from the start.

Communication, solid documentation, and agreement of project requirements, milestones, and goals are needed before the project work can begin. From that first day, document all meetings, conversations, action items, and responsibilities; and share it with all stakeholders. By doing this there are no questions on what was discussed and what is needed for the project, and the documentation can be used to clear up any potential misinterpretations. This process should continue throughout the project, documented in status reports and meeting minutes, and followed up with responsible parties either face-to-face or over the phone. Having the follow up conversation is extremely important, because it provides the sponsor with an opportunity to open up to you about the project outside of the team meetings. Overall, strong communication and consensus, along with solid documentation, will help you avoid having “difficult sponsor” issues and lead to a strong trustworthy relationship.

Key Points:

  • Establish an agreed upon project charter, scope statement, and requirements document. These documents are to be formally signed off on by the sponsor
  • Communication! Establish Weekly Status Meetings with Formally Documented Status Reports
  • Honesty is Best! – Do not hide issues from the sponsor, it will come back to haunt you! Bring those issues to the sponsor immediately, preferably with a proposed solution.
  • Follow an agreed upon Change Control Process. All changes are to follow the process no matter the size or impact to the project.
  • Schedule in-person meetings with the sponsor to address issues and coordinate with them on issues resolution.
  • Reference documentation as needed. Weekly Status Reports, Meeting Minutes, Issues Log, etc…
  • Temper and Tone! Keep your head! Remember you are leading a team, work with them on how to resolve issues and mutually come to an agreement. Your relationship with the team and the sponsor throughout the project is key to overall success!

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