Is your project sponsor in the audience or on the stage?
By Gary Lloyd
Published: 10 December 2014
Gary Lloyd, owner of Double Loop Consulting, looks at how often, when and who to involve in your progress review meetings.
Structuring for regular value delivery is the only sure-fire way of knowing how a project is progressing. Realistically, however, there could be a few months between each value delivery. So, what can one do, between deliveries, to determine whether the project is on course?
I recommend a regular meeting, chaired by the project sponsor, to review:
- Project progress and trajectory versus the business case summary
- Key risks that were not included in the business case summary
- Expenditure versus budget and progress versus schedule, using earned value analysis
- Key issues arising that are not covered already by the above points
Sponsors should chair, rather than simply attend, because this puts them in the driving seat, asking questions and seeking information.
This is a role that most senior people are good at and usually relish. All too often, however, the sponsor leaves it to the project manager to chair and the sponsor becomes part of the audience, rather than the leading actor.
If the project sponsor is unable or unwilling to chair these meetings, they are either too senior for the role or they are sending a clear message to everyone that the project is unimportant to them. Organizations that want to get value from their projects need to appoint sponsors who have the time and confidence to take an active role.
If a senior person is not going to have time to fulfil their role in the project properly, it is better to appoint someone more junior who will be fully engaged. However, this will only work if the person appointed as sponsor is empowered to make decisions that are not second-guessed later. If the person nominated as sponsor has to continually check with someone ‘upstairs’, they will not be effective in the role or taken seriously by the project team.
Appointing someone more junior carries the risk that the sponsor is not regarded as a peer by other senior stakeholders –making influencing and persuading a greater challenge. On balance, however, it is better to have a more junior and fully engaged sponsor than one who is disconnected and drifts in and out.
An approach that I have seen work with a more junior-ranking sponsor is to provide support from a more senior ‘project owner’ who can help with stakeholder management as required. The ‘project owner’ is analogous to the company chairman and the ‘sponsor’ to the CEO. But, at the risk of repeating myself, there is no point in adopting this approach if the ‘owner’ is seen as the ‘the real project sponsor’. The test of this is whether the sponsor is empowered to make decisions that stick. But like a good CEO, they are likely to consult with the chairman when there are particularly big decisions to make.
The central purpose of the regular ‘steering’ meeting is to take decisions and assign responsibility for actions that address matters arising from the agenda. Assigning responsibility and a timeframe for action is absolutely critical. I have frequently seen senior people make decisions in meetings only to be surprised that nothing happens as a consequence. Follow through is essential.
The frequency of the meetings should be determined by the value, risk and urgency of the project. If these are sufficiently high, a weekly meeting might be appropriate. I have often seen this happen in small organizations and start-ups where the business owners want to be closely involved in the project, particularly in the early stages.
In my experience, however, projects usually fall into two main categories, with some grey territory in between. There are large projects of six months or more that establish monthly steering meetings and there are projects of 12 weeks or less that establish a fortnightly or weekly steering meeting.
But don’t just slip into these familiar routines. Think about the mix of value, risk and urgency. How important is the project to the sponsor and how often do their hands need to be on the steering wheel? There is nothing that says that the lunar cycle should determine the frequency of project steering meetings.
This may all sound pretty obvious but The National Audit Office's report into the UK Government's £2.4 billion, high-profile, Universal Credit Programme concluded that:
‘The [programme] board relied on external reviews to assess progress. Such external reviews were not sufficiently frequent for the board to use them as a substitute for timely, adequate management information.’
When all is said and done, effective business leadership remains the number one determinant of project success.