Problems with Co-Sponsors
From time to time, we come across projects that have two sponsors, often called co-sponsors. It’s rare to have more than two executives sponsoring a project, but even having two can cause problems. A project to launch new software for the sales force, for example, could be sponsored by the IT Director, whose team is doing all the work, and the Sales Director, whose team is the beneficiary of the project deliverables. Who is actually in charge of the project?
Just to be clear, problems arise from having two sponsors at the same time. Normally project sponsors stay with a project for the whole life-cycle, but it can also work well to have specialist sponsors. Projects have different needs at different times. Someone who can shepherd the project through the business case phase is useful in the early days, and someone who can solve problems and remove roadblocks would be a great sponsor during the execution phase. At the end of the project you want someone who can focus on benefits and ensure that the deliverables from the project are properly adopted. Not everyone is good at everything, so sometimes limiting yourself to just one sponsor is, well, limiting.
However, put two sponsors on a project at the same time, and the story is completely different. Here are some of the challenges for a project manager working in a co-sponsorship situation.
Where are your project resources coming from? Co-sponsorship is an issue if the resources are coming from just one sponsor’s area as this can lead to a sense of entitlement. If that person is providing the budget or the people, they may believe that this grants a greater say over the project scope.
Equally, who is going to approve the release of resources? If more people are required, can one sponsor grant that, even if it means taking people from the other sponsor’s team? The problem is perhaps even worse when it comes to money: if both sponsors have their own budgets then they could be resistant to contributing more to the project budget.
A response to this is to second the people on to the project team if at all possible. If this isn’t feasible, gain agreement up front about how resource allocation will work. And always have one project budget, even if by necessity you have to have several people agree before you can dip into contingency funds.
Who has the final say? If two sponsors are involved, you could find that decisions don’t get made as no one wants to take final responsibility. The discussion could go back and forth between offices in the executive suite without actually advancing your issue towards conclusion. Or, one sponsor makes a decision that is then reversed by the other sponsor, leaving you unclear as to whose instructions to follow.
Get both your co-sponsors to agree their areas of responsibility, and document these in the project roles and responsibility log. You need to know who to ask when you need decisions made on the project, and the decisions have to be binding. If a co-sponsor tries to reverse a decision that has already been made, politely point out that this is a conflicting position to what you were working on and suggest bringing all of you together to finally debate the points.
Having a decision log can also help: make a list of all the key decisions made on the project, who made them and when. This can be really useful when trying to remember why you are doing something a particular way.
Two people in charge means two opinions about what is most important. This is a particular problem when it comes to negotiating changes.
The best way to approach change management is to follow your change process. Once a change has been received, carry out a change evaluation and then present both sponsors will all the facts. Take data from your enterprise project management tool and share the impact that the change will have on the project.
Ideally only one of them will make the final decision about whether the change is added into the scope, but in our experience changes are often discussed in a group once the impact is known.
Working with co-sponsors is not ideal. All kinds of team structures are possible on projects, and they can all work – even projects with two sponsors. The important thing is to recognize the challenges of co-sponsorship environments and set expectations early about how the relationship between the sponsors and the project manager is going to work.