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Sponsorship: how to enhance the role within the project profession

Blog posted by: Richard Zavitz 06 July 2020.


Early in 2020 the Association for Project Management (APM) Governance Specific Interest Group (SIG) analysed the results of an online survey of senior executives who undertake a sponsor role or are board directors and other project professionals involved in governance of change. The results provide a roadmap of actions that we can take to further enhance this crucial role within the project profession. Our key recommendations are outlined below.

A more detailed article is available on the APM Hub (the online community for APM members) that presents the results and findings of the sponsor survey to support our recommendations. We will also be hosting a webinar on Thursday 9 July 2020 at 12:30 BST to discuss the results in detail. Click here to register.

Role of sponsor

The survey confirmed that there are multiple role titles for those in the project profession involved in ensuring that projects are governed effectively and that they deliver the desired outcomes to meet the identified business needs. The lack of consistency can lead to confusion when collaborating among organisations or when recruiting. It was observed that the roles can be grouped by level of authority:

  • Owner: represented by the board of directors and provides organisational oversight to appoint and hold sponsors to account for the outcome and benefits of the change/investment.
  • Executive sponsor: appointed by the board to deliver project outcomes and realise the benefits of the investment for the organisation. Holds the organisational control of the project and is accountable to the board for success.
  • Delegated sponsors: appointed by the executive sponsor who may be time poor or lack specific skills. Responsible to carry out tasks on behalf of the accountable party.

We recommend the use of prefixes (e.g. executive and delegated) to distinguish between authority levels, with an executive sponsor as the accountable party and a delegated sponsor as the responsible party. This distinction will help clarify the relationship of sponsors within both the business and the project and will aid in the recruitment and performance development of people in these roles.

Governance of change

There is an overall positive impression that governance of change contributes to successful project outcomes. Our survey suggests that those who oversee and spend the money (board directors) have a more positive impression than those applying the available processes day-to-day (executive sponsor and delegated sponsor). The board should engage their executives for feedback on governance processes to identify and implement improvements.

Holding sponsors to account

It is the role of the board to hold executive sponsors to account for the outcome and benefits of the change/investment. Our survey shows that those overseeing the process (board directors) are much more confident in its effectiveness than the executive sponsors subjected to it. To align the impressions of holding sponsors to account, the board should agree with their sponsors clear expectations for performance that is linked to project outcomes and competency. Both should be implemented in a clear and consistent way with regular opportunities for feedback.

Sponsor competency

A standard competency model for the sponsor role does not currently exist to support the project profession although APM is in the process of developing one. Until a model is in place, there is no objective way to assess what sponsors need to know or what is required to sponsor a project of a certain complexity and risk. In its absence, some organisations have defined for themselves the expected competencies for sponsors to support the governance of change for the business and project.

Based on the APM Body of Knowledge 7th edition, the following areas were identified for the survey to ask about individual and organisational competence:

  • Business case development
  • Securing funding
  • Developing and communicating the project vision
  • Stakeholder engagement
  • Holding the delivery team to account
  • Identifying measurable benefits
  • Approving issues, risks and changes
  • Realising actual benefits.

Results indicate that respondents in senior roles have a higher ability in a smaller number of competencies compared to delegated sponsors who have abilities across all the competencies though with a significant proportion of those being untrained. Senior roles also identified being learners across all competencies twice as much as delegated sponsors. Senior roles can be said to have ‘deep’ knowledge whereas delegated sponsors have ‘broad’ knowledge.

The differences between executive sponsors as senior leaders and delegated sponsors at the working level need to be reflected in a standard competency model. The model can inform job descriptions and the approach to recruitment and performance development.

Benefits of training

In the survey, trained professionals in business case development and realising actual benefits held a more positive view on governance of change contributing to successful project outcomes and these should be areas to focus sponsor training. Organisations should review their culture, processes, behaviours, and structures to enhance competence in holding delivery teams to account and in engaging with stakeholders.

For most competencies, trained professionals held a more negative view on how well the board holds sponsors to account for successful outcomes of change. Boards should therefore consider their own development in holding sponsors to account alongside the development of sponsors.

A varied training programme is encouraged to cover the identified sponsor competencies rather than a one-off course as trained sponsors were more interested in training than their untrained peers.

Further engagement

The APM Governance SIG is engaged in improving investment outcomes through better governance of change, and promoting effective sponsorship is crucial to achieving this. To continue with our engagement and support for sponsors and sponsorship in the project profession, we will be sharing the results of our sponsor survey shortly as part of a series of webinars we are running in July.

You can register for free by clicking on the links below:

  1. Thursday 9 July (12:30 to 13:30 BST): Sponsor survey: findings and recommendations webinar
  2. Thursday July 23 (17:00 to 18:00 BST): The Executive Sponsor role – panel debate with senior leaders’ webinar
  3. Thursday July 30 (17:00 to 18:00 BST): The Delegated Sponsor role – panel debate with senior practitioners’ webinar
  4. Early autumn (to be confirmed): Sponsorship: competency, training and accreditation webinar

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About the Author

Richard Zavitz is an experienced project professional working in the sponsorship of major capital investment projects. He has worked through the full project life cycle and has experience leading teams in the following areas: defining strategy, business case development, securing consents, stakeholder management/communication, writing requirements, design development, delivery oversight, project integration and benefits evaluation.

In 2019 he joined the APM Governance SIG committee to further develop the resources available to sponsors and to enhance the role within the project profession. He led the analysis of the sponsor survey, developed the recommendations and looks forward to following through with their implementation.


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