A Tale of Toxic Sponsorship
There are several roles that must be filled effectively to successfully complete a project. One of the most critical is the role of the project sponsor—the senior manager or executive who supplies resources for the project and represents the executive team when it comes to critical project decisions about what must be done, by when, with what resources. It is difficult to succeed without effective sponsorship—and almost impossible if your sponsor is toxic, as this true tale explains.
“I know the schedule is aggressive, but we need to find a way to get this done.” Depending on context, these words from a sponsor can be inspirational or demotivating. Project sponsors represent the business interests of a project. It’s common for contractual and customer satisfaction issues to drive a delivery date. Project managers and project teams look to the sponsor for hard decisions about trade-offs and risk, but these decisions need to be based on the best data available, not wishful thinking.
Recent conversations with a project manager revealed the needless damage that can be caused by a “toxic sponsor”. The project schedule was clearly not attainable, but rather than admitting the challenge and dealing with the facts on the ground, the executive chose to discount the credible schedule information and publish target dates that the team knew were unrealistic. The consequences were predictable. If the team needed to give the illusion that the schedule targets could be met and no additional resources were available, the quality had to be compromised. As Jerry Weinberg sagely said, “If quality is negotiable, then any schedule can be met.”
The demoralized team worked excessive overtime trying to meet the bare minimum requirements for key milestones, falling further and further behind. Important but not urgent tasks that should have gotten attention languished while the effort to give the illusion that there were no schedule problems consumed the team’s attention. The team burned itself out. The work products created were, at best, “C-” quality work. Turnover on the team became an issue as morale sank.
What was motivating the sponsor? She was playing “schedule chicken” with one of her peers. Schedule chicken occurs when two or more managers have a date they have jointly agreed to, and they individually realize that the date is unattainable but wait for the other manager to acknowledge the slip and take the blame. The name comes from the stupid teenager game where two kids ride their bicycles (or in the really stupid version, drive their cars) straight at one another waiting for the first person to “chicken out”.
In this case, the sponsor’s peer ultimately blinked first and agreed to a several month delay at the last minute. The toxic sponsor was elated and did not appreciate that the team had accumulated so much design debt because of rushed work products that the multiple month delay would be insufficient to go back and rework those deliverables into quality products.
Responsible sponsorship might have resulted in a better outcome. If the sponsor had embraced the need for a schedule adjustment or provided additional resources early, work could have been done more efficiently and with better quality from the start.
The project is on a trajectory for disaster. The toxic manager will ultimately pay the price. She has broken the morale of her project team and caused significant attrition, and for all of the team’s efforts, the work products produced will likely be inadequate for success. It is very difficult for a project to succeed without effective sponsorship. Toxic sponsorship is often (and in this case is proving to be) the kiss of death.