Pivotal role of programme sponsor crucial to project success

The programme sponsor occupies a critical role in maintaining good communications between the delivery team and an organisation’s leadership, writes Alex Vaughan.

Mergers, acquisitions and development programmes are all substantive projects for organisations to deal with. One of the major challenges to ensure their successful completion is maintaining proper communication between the team delivering the programme and the organisation’s executive leadership. This is the role of the programme sponsor.  

The sponsor is there to act on behalf of the board to lead a programme to completion. Their role is not to get dragged into the detail of it, but to maintain a wider view. This is crucial to keeping activity on track. They provide a single point of focus, clear accountability and an explicit sense of direction. They are responsible for appointing the rest of the team that the programme needs and then acting as the conduit between them and the board.

This is a pivotal position. There is a danger of mixed messages, ill-conceived strategy and an ultimate struggle to deliver the benefits of the intended programme. Therefore, it is important to select the right person for the job. 

Asking the big questions

The first step for any programme sponsor is to make clear what the desired business outcome is. Is it a problem that needs resolution? Is it an attractive opportunity?  How does the board define success? The sponsor has to make sure that there is absolute clarity about what outcome the company is trying to achieve. Once it is defined, the sponsor can then begin to shape the solution.

The second step is being clear on the time frame, the business case and what metrics success will be judged by. From this point the programme sponsor can then begin to think about the team they are going to appoint to meet these goals. 

They need to agree a governance process with the board for the programme. This includes areas such as: what authority is delegated?  What is the appetite for risk? What governance would the board like?  What would the reporting involve?  These factors are naturally contingent on the company and the complexity of the programme. 

Finding the right answer

Once the big questions are in place it is the role of the programme sponsor to begin finding the correct answers. Whether the project would work best being divided up into a programme of parallel activities or managed as a whole, where there might be collaborative opportunities, how to manage stakeholder expectations, the potential impact on customers and the supply chain and what it looks like in terms of design and technological requirements. 

The key for the programme sponsor is to constantly keep the question of what success looks like in mind this will inform what they finally recommend to the board as the most effective solution and means of implementation. Additionally, they should consult with experts and peers and do some horizon scanning.

Managing the team 

The programme sponsor has to manage expectations both upwards and downwards. With the team, there are three key areas to resolve:  

  • The first is measurement and reporting. What measures should be in place so the sponsor can judge whether the programme is on the right track? The best solution is setting key milestones to track progress which can be reported to the board. 
  • The second is to what degree authority for decisions is delegated to team members from the programme sponsor. Where can they make their own decisions, when do they need to be referred to the sponsor and when does the sponsor need to bring them to the board’s attention? 
  • Finally the issue of resolution processes need to be thought through. The sponsor cannot get involved in all issues so the key thing really is for them to be clear with the team in the first instance and identify those issues that require their involvement. 

A robust framework means the sponsor can stand back and empower the team to get on with their jobs, coming to them only with exceptional issues apart from agreed milestones. When teams understand the vision and have a shared sense of purpose they feel empowered to find the most effective solutions within reasonable bounds. 

The qualities of a good programme sponsor

Good programme sponsors are able to think strategically, set the vision and direction, manage stakeholder expectations at all levels, select, appoint and lead teams and are expert communicators. They show an understanding of the business intricacies as well as being aware of best practice in programme and project management.

 These talented people can come from any part of an organisation. At Costain we have found that appointing someone as a programme sponsor is a catalyst for their personal development. It builds on their abilities in leadership, communications, analytical thinking and relationship-building at a strategic level. 

Three top tips 

Ask questions. The programme sponsor should be someone who asks the right questions at the start and can then lead with purpose.  Changing track halfway through a project will risk the team becoming confused about the direction.  

  • Be clear on the outcome – what success would look like
  • Be clear on time and budget
  • Have clarity of the governance required

Play devil’s advocate. A good sponsor doesn’t show their preferences too early. They encourage open thinking when it comes to solving complex challenges.  If they make it plain early on that they favour a certain solution that’s the direction the team will head and the opportunity for additional creativity will be lost. 

Be brave. Programme sponsors should never lose sight of the end game. Challenges will come and go throughout a programme and project lifecycles, but remaining focused on the outcome desired is key.

Alex Vaughan is managing director, natural resources at Costain.