Project Sponsor: Three Types of Authority

Projects implement strategy.  The Project Sponsor (or Executive Sponsor) is the person responsible for the success of a project.  They provide strategic alignment, necessary guidance and resources to the project manager and team.  In most cases, they are the original champion of the project, but may also have inherited it from a predecessor.  A key aspect of the role is the authority to fund and support the project and make key decisions.

The success of a Project Sponsor depends on their personal traits, experience and the maturity of project governance in the organisation.  They can succeed by not only ensuring project completion but also by ending poorly run or badly aligned projects before they waste too many resources.  Success can also depend on whether or not they have the right authority to succeed.  I have observed three main types of project sponsor authority:

  1. The ‘Sole Charge’ Sponsor.  They have full authority and accountability for the project or programme.  They make decisions about time, cost, quality, scope, risk and benefits.  They may be supported by a Steering Committee or Project Board but they make the final decisions alone.  They may also have one or more stakeholder groups providing advice.  With the right skills and advice, this approach can be very effective. 
  2. The ‘Chair’ Sponsor.  This may occur when the project or programme is co-funded, diverse governance expertise is required, or there are several politically powerful stakeholders.  The Steering Committee or Project Board makes collective decisions and the Sponsor chairs the group, with or without a casting vote.  Some projects or programme need this approach to ensure consensus.  The Chair Sponsor needs strong chairing skills to succeed but it can be very effective approach.
  3. The ‘Nominal’ Sponsor.  They have accountability but do not have the authority to release resources, manage key constraints, make critical decisions or escalate issues beyond the project.  If they lead a Steering Committee or Project Board, that group also lacks authority to decide and act.  The necessary authority sits with a person or body not actively involved in the project or programme.  There will be delays in decision-making, downtime will increase and there will be a lack of strategic clarity.  Essentially, this approach needs a lot of luck to achieve success.

All three forms of Project Sponsor can be found but the nominal Project Sponsor should be avoided.  Accountability without authority is a really bad idea.  Let me know what you think and if you have encountered other forms of Project Sponsor.

Hague offers confidential advisory services to project sponsors, including one off urgent advice, retainer-based services, or formal training.

Phil Guerin, Consultant/Director, Hague Consulting Ltd. © Hague Consulting Ltd 2024.

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