The empty chair - part two

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Following on from the Empty Chair Part One, we thought it might be helpful to formalise the thinking and suggest some of the approaches that might work in addressing the problem of the absent sponsor. Looking at the factors explaining the absent sponsors it seems there are four core issues:

Reluctance to undertake the role; often attributed to them being appointed to it rather than choosing to undertake it. This reluctance might also stem from fear of incompetence due to a lack of development or clarity in respect of the role and no clear route to gaining appropriate support.

Lack of understanding of the role; few sponsors have had focused education as to what the role is and what are the most important aspects of it. This can lead to focus being placed in the wrong place or simply, in the case of the absent sponsor, not provided at all.

Low prioritisation of the project; since most sponsors don't find themselves in the role unless they have achieved some seniority in the business they are invariably busy. And since most people will pay attention to the areas against which they are assessed - and these typically appear in the 'day job' role - it is not surprising that many sponsors prioritise their line management responsibilities over project sponsorship duties.

Inappropriate governance practice; there is a significant difference between delegation of responsibility and abdication of accountability. However, faced with competence at the next level down the project's management structure, it is quite easy for the sponsor to mistake the two. If Project Managers take the decisions that the absent sponsor should be taking then the problem gets even worse.

We've come up with some strategies and tactics that project managers who are faced with an absent sponsor can adopt:

Strategy one: Clarification of project's business case and mission. Since the PM cannot realistically address a senior management decision to appoint a particular sponsor, the strategy to deal with reluctance should be one of convincing the sponsor that the work is necessary and important to the organisation and that they are well placed to carry out the role. The crucial tools will be the business case and the project mission. Both are invaluable in placing the project into perspective in the organisational environment.

Strategy two: Education. If this comes across as patronising then it is being done wrong. Few sponsors have had deliberately focused development attention on this crucial role; however a few well focused conversations on the relationship and who plays what part in the sponsor and project manager partnership can go a long way.

Strategy three: Time management techniques. This strategy, like strategy two, depends on upward management. Agreeing appropriate levels and frequency of engagement and the timings of these inputs with the sponsor will help them to see a route to putting sufficient time in without it being too onerous. It will also require the project manager to be extremely thoughtful of, and organised around, the sponsor's schedule.

Strategy four: Standardise governance practices. Ensuring that the 'RACI' is explicit with regard to the trickier areas of decision making is critical. But the appropriate level of authority making the right decisions in a timely fashion is the key to this strategy.

So much for the coping strategies; we've got some great ideas for the supporting 'tool kit' but what are yours? Let's pool our thoughts!

There are other things, too, of course. Contact CITI to see how you might adapt to be better at adopting Agile, or I can always be reached directly via email me at NDobson@citi.co.uk


Nick Dobson
Managing Consultant, CITI Limited


Nick Dobson

Nick Dobson

I enjoy helping individuals at all organisational levels to review and positively modify beliefs and behaviours
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