My first project for which I was the Project Sponsor was a failure. I was sponsoring a project to replace a closed system with a new flexible, open system.

...Or, When will we ever learn?

My first project for which I was the Project Sponsor was a failure. I was sponsoring a project to replace a closed system with a new flexible, open system (I thought).

I endeavored to do the right thing. I specified my requirements, briefed and motivated the project team, (vaguely) tracked progress through the relevant operational manager who oversaw the team, and was eventually presented with a solution (delivered on time and slightly under budget) that gave me what I already had (a closed system), but now with a new price tag.

This failure was primarily due to what I did not do.

  • I did not track progress closely enough. I accepted statements of “everything is OK” from my operational manager.
  • I did not track what was being delivered closely enough. Having stated clearly and emphatically at the outset what I wanted and why, I assumed the project team remembered this in detail. They didn’t.
  • I also forgot that several members of the project team (eg the programmers) were not on the project team when I briefed it – so they had no idea of my needs and intent.

These examples just illustrate the power and impact of governance inaction on project results.

Whereas with operations there is a repeating process that takes care of many business events and issues, in projects there are not repeating processes – the project only exists for a time, delivers and disappears. Gaps in the processes are often found too late to remedy the impacts.

In this example, I received exactly what I said I did not want (a closed system).

Should the project manager have intervened? Yes. Should the manager I delegated to have intervened? Yes. But as the Project Sponsor the ultimate accountability for this project and what it delivered was mine. And I did not intervene either.

It is all too easy to confuse activity with progress and outputs with results. Project teams tend to focus on their activities and outputs. The governance team needs to focus on progress and results. These are two very different perspectives. (Which is why I advocate that you should NEVER have project people training executives in project governance – they have the wrong perspective.)

In this case I and my managers were measuring activity and outputs, not progress and results.

What did I learn from my failure? As a Project Sponsor…

  1. Don’t delegate your accountability – be involved to ensure you get what you want
  2. Don’t only track activity – look at what is being delivered
  3. Reinforce the strategic intent of the project and your desired business outcomes regularly (otherwise they’ll be forgotten)
  4. Delivering the right result is more important than coming in under budget. (In this case, the whole investment was wasted so the fact that it came in just under budget was irrelevant).
  5. Go talk to the project team – what do they think they’re delivering? Is this what you want them to deliver?

And I could go on, but...

In Conclusion

...the important aspect to this list is that too many Sponsors are not observing even these five lessons. They too will therefore oversee expenditure that delivers inadequate or even negative results. (NB 40% of projects leave their organizations worse off than before the project was commissioned – as in my case.)

It is time to recognize that project sponsorship is a specific knowledge and skillset that needs to be learned and supported. The cost of not doing so is too prohibitive.

Topics: Capital Investment

Further Reading



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Revision History

First published: Simms, J. (Dec 2014) as "How To Fail As A Sponsor"

Updated: Chapman, A. (March 2020), Revisions and Corrections