Project Management Success Factors: Sponsorship

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Numerous studies report that many, if not most, IT projects are not successful. According to separate studies by Gartner Institute, the Standish Group and TechRepublic, anywhere from 40 percent to 65 percent of all IT projects are “challenged,” meaning they are delivered late, over budget or without required functionality. We all know how difficult it is to achieve project success. Many things can hinder success, such as little or no executive sponsorship, lack of project management support, unclear vision, no project plan and weak processes for handling change.

In a series of five articles beginning this month, we will help you achieve better project success by providing five critical success factors to address common problems encountered when managing projects:

 

 

  1. Acquire Project Sponsorship
  2. Support Project Management
  3. Articulate & Link Business Need to Vision
  4. Create a Clear Project Plan
  5. Match Changes to Vision

 

Acquire Project Sponsorship
According to a Standish Group study, lack of executive sponsorhsip is often a major contributor to project failure. A 12-year study, published by The Institute of Chartered Accountants in Australia, summarized a major project cancellation and explained that organizational politics were the underlying reason for the failure. This study found that when project stakeholders had varying levels of commitment and involvement, disputes arose over project goals and the methods used to achieve those goals.

 

Gopal K. Kapur, president of the San Ramon, Calif.-based Center for Project Management (CPM), points the finger at IS management. “CIOs are one of the major reasons for project failure,” Kapur said. “Too many are not fluent in project management practices and principles—they couldn’t recognize them if their lives depended on it.”

 

As a result, Kapur said, IS projects commonly fall victim to what he calls “Management’s Seven Deadly Sins”:

 

 

  1. Mistaking half-baked ideas for viable projects.
  2. Dictating unrealistic project deadlines.
  3. Assigning under-skilled project managers to high-complexity projects.
  4. Not ensuring solid business sponsorship.
  5. Failing to break projects into manageable “chunks.”
  6. Failing to institute robust project-process architecture.
  7. Not establishing a comprehensive project portfolio to track progress of ongoing projects.

 

Importance of Sponsorship for Projects
According to a 2000 and 2003 Standish Group Report, the top success factors for projects were as follows.

 

Success Factors – 2000Success Factors – 2003
Executive supportUser involvement
User involvementExecutive support
Experienced project managerExperienced project manager
Clear business objectivesClear business objectives
Minimized scopeMinimized scope
Standard software infrastructureAgile requirements process
Firm basic requirementsStandard software infrastructure
Formal methodologyFormal methodology
Reliable estimatesReliable estimates
Other criteriaSkilled staff

 
Executive support, then, seems essential to project success. So, what does it mean to have executive support, and how do we, as project managers, secure it? One essential ingredient is to clearly define roles and responsibilities for projects before beginning them.

 

The key roles in any project are the sponsor and project manager. According to the Standish Report listed above, executive support and user involvement are the major contributors toward project success, and an experienced project manager is another critical factor.

 

However, much project work gets completed without a formal project manager, which can often cause projects to be delayed or cancelled. The same Standish Group study found that for all “successful” projects, 97 percent of them had a formal project manager. Of the so-called “challenged” projects in the study, only 79 percent had project managers assigned.

 

The table below contains a summary of sponsor and project manager roles for successful projects:

 

Sponsor/Project Manager Roles

 

Sponsor RolesProject Manager Roles
VisionProject plan
CharterGuide
FundingCommunications
ScopeReporting
Acceptance of “product”Risk management
Owns requirementsConflict management

 

This chart illustrates a summary of sponsor and project manager roles for successful projects

 

Our experience and research tell us that when the roles get blurry, then projects start to suffer. Some examples may help to clarify:

 

 

  • Project managers often feel responsible for the project’s vision and scope, and can end up making decisions they shouldn’t.
  • Project managers at many organizations initiate projects and create their charters—a task better left up to the sponsor.
  • We’ve seen sponsors become too involved in project planning and execution, to the point of almost reversing roles with the project manager! It is difficult to achieve successful projects in these cases.

 

Lessons Learned
Watermark Learning, like other organizations, has many more things to do than we have time or resources for. As sponsors of our own projects, we haven’t always practiced what we preach (teach) and have learned the value of sponsorship through our own experience of faltering executive support.

 

We recently completed a major redesign to our Web site. It was a substantial undertaking, and we gave what we thought was good visibility and support. However, due to budgetary constraints, we had to use a part-time project manager. When our first project manager got a new job and couldn’t continue, we changed project managers, and again had one part-time. As the sponsors, we found that we were not exactly “engaged” in the project because we were also busy with other things. It was no wonder the project stalled out, lost momentum and was slowly withering away. Finally, we realized the trouble and engaged ourselves again. We showed more interest and support for the project, held the project manager accountable for the project results, and the project got back on track.

 

We used to find that we had many “ideas” that didn’t materialize unless we had sponsor vision and support, and a project manager to implement the ideas. We therefore reformed our practices and realized that we needed to assign a project manager for all of our projects, no matter how small. Now we insist on a sponsor-written charter to initiate all projects. This means that the ideas that do turn into charters, usually then become successful projects.

 

Elizabeth Larson and Richard Larson, co-principals of Edina-based Watermark Learning, have more than 25 years each of experience in business, pro

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