Can Your Project Succeed without Your Sponsor On Board?
A project manager recently asked a tough question: “What if the biggest challenge to my progress is getting timely decisions from my sponsor?”
The question wasn’t hard because I didn’t have an answer; it was hard because it was earnest and treads on dangerous political ground.
“Have you made clear that you need the information to proceed?” I asked.
“For months!” she replied with exasperation. “He keeps promising me he will get the decision but doesn’t come through. Sometimes if you can’t get answers, you just make your best guess and go if you are going to succeed, right?”
I generally don’t think that is the right approach, but it depends a lot on the organizational context and your relationship with your sponsor.
Here’s the dilemma, as I see it: If you make your best guess and charge ahead, you might guess right and be the hero who finished the project despite the obstacles. But if you guess wrong, you are naked and alone—you spent organizational resources on an unauthorized tangent, usurping the sponsor’s prerogatives. You may have finished the project, but was it the right project?
Imagine a project manager is building a house for you—in this scenario, you’re the sponsor. There are blueprints with a clear, detailed definition of what is to be built, and cost and schedule have been estimated.
A blueprint error is discovered, so the dutiful project manager contacts you promptly for guidance. Unbeknownst to the project manager, the issue has far-reaching consequences for you and your family. What seems like a straightforward decision to the project manager is actually a complex negotiation that must occur among you, your significant other, your in-laws, and your bank.
The frustrated project manager nudges you repeatedly for your decision, but the negotiations are taking longer than you expected, and you keep promising and missing dates for a decision.
Pause and consider: Are you being a bad sponsor? Maybe. It would help the project manager if you provided context for the delay. It would help you if the project manager could make clear the cost and schedule impacts of the delayed decision. That might affect how you prioritize the decision, or you might be willing to accept delays or increase costs to get an acceptable decision.
Imagine how you would feel when you finally concluded the delicate negotiations with your family and the bank and called the project manager with your decision, and you were told, “I never heard back from you, so I made my best guess and finished the work.”
I don’t think it is possible to succeed without the sponsor on board. As a project manager, you can ask questions, you can inform sponsors of the implications of delayed answers, and you can ask if the sponsor is willing to proceed with a given set of assumptions and incur the costs and delays if those assumptions are wrong. But I think it is always the sponsor’s call.
Completing the wrong project on time and on budget is a hollow victory—and potentially a career-limiting move.