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Beyond Executive Sign-Off: Getting Sponsorship, Not Permission

The Need for Sponsorship

“We’re all set. Our executives are aligned with the plan.” How often have you heard this right before the start of a project, only to see the project lose momentum and get bogged down with bureaucracy and red tape as it moves ahead?

Sponsorship is a key component of customer-centric transformation initiatives (and any other type of initiative as well). Without the right sponsor in place, projects stutter and fail to achieve their full potential. This is corroborated by the findings in Merkle’s survey, where we studied projects that had successful launches, and observed that nearly 90 percent of those successful launches had organizational stakeholders that were actively engaged with the project. We also noticed that when project launches failed to achieve the success that was planned, fewer than 50% of the indicated organizational stakeholders were actively engaged.

How can you tell if your project is supported by “passive permission” or “active sponsorship”? Permission often gets misinterpreted as alignment or ownership. The table below provides a few characteristics that differentiate between executives who provide permission vs. those who are on board for true sponsorship.

Permission Sponsorship
  • Simply writes the check
  • Joins the kick-off and then just listens in for quarterly updates
  • Permits non-aligned executives to pursue alternate priorities
  • Doesn't work to clear distractions, avoids disputes and decisions
  • Quickly disassociates from project when things get difficult
  • Serves as active and visible proponent of project
  • Requires frequent updates from the team, reviews with interest and urgency
  • Makes sure the initiative is a priority across the enterprise
  • Drives focus on the main goal, does not tolerate disctractions
  • Is accountable - takes pride in its successes and owns up to its failures

Getting Sponsorship

Getting the right level of sponsorship is never easy. Based on our experience, it typically follows a three step process.

  • Identify the right sponsor. On a topic as broad-reaching as customer centricity, every senior executive is a potential sponsor. Clearly they cannot all be sponsors, so how do you select the right sponsor for your initiative? On most transformational engagements, stakeholders from across the organization are involved, and a sponsor’s role extends to negotiating and mediating between other stakeholders. Which functional areas will be (a) directly and (b) indirectly impacted by your project? An active sponsor works with other (potential) stakeholders to ensure success, and is typically someone who can mandate or directly influence the support of the required stakeholders.
  • Establish value to sponsor. Getting a sponsor to sign on is almost always an active recruitment effort – sponsors are usually busy and have multiple projects in hand. Successful projects almost always have sponsors who directly benefit from the success of a project, and the benefits of these successes (to both the sponsor and the organization) should be highlighted to the potential sponsor.
  • Engage the sponsor. Once you have recruited the sponsor, engage them on the right issues. At every stage of the project (assessment, design, and implementation), sponsors play a different role. In the planning phases, a sponsor’s role is focused on building relationships and prioritizing project activities. During the build phase, engaging and roping in other stakeholders become more important. Toward the end of the project and the launch/sustain phases, ensuring momentum and resolving potential conflicts become more common to a sponsor’s roles.

Sponsorship Challenges

Even with a sponsor in place, moving to implementation is not easy.
  • A project manager is not a project sponsor. A project manager creates the project plan and maintains lines of communication between stakeholders. A sponsor helps break down barriers, secure funding, and also creates a link between senior leadership and the project manager. The sponsor works with the project manager to create the vision, but is more hands-off when it comes to implementing it. The two can have overlapping roles (e.g., responsibility for the success of the project), but ensuring that there are clear lines of demarcation between their individual roles is important for the project to be successful
  • Sponsors are busy. Sponsors can have multiple priorities and multiple projects on the table at the same time. Having a clearly defined role and scope of work for each sponsor helps, especially when there is more than one sponsor on board. If the sponsor is not able to allocate enough time, or if the project is not part of the sponsor’s key objectives for the year, then it could be time to look for a different sponsor.
  • There is a right level of sponsorship. Every good project manager is already aware of the need for sponsorship and most projects do in fact obtain executive sponsorship right from the start, but there is often not enough of it. Different project types have different requirements depending on their scope and size, and we often see these projects focus only on the most directly impacted role for a sponsor. As an example of a better way to do this, would be the deployment of a new content repository to obtain project sponsors, not just from the content creation and editing teams (the most frequent users of the repository), but also from the marketing and sales teams (that do not use the repository as frequently but have an important say in content creation). A short impact analysis can go a long way when it comes to selecting the right set of project sponsors.