December 2000 - Sponsoring Successful Projects
How to Sponsor a Successful Project
The 20 Tips for Project Success were prompted by an actual client situation. A business unit manager was asked to be the Executive Sponsor for a new technology project. Never having been asked to play such a role before, the person asked for guidelines on how to be a successful sponsor. When we couldn’t locate anything in our extensive file of project management information, we developed the following list.
The tips provided are a compilation of many years experience in managing successful projects, consulting with organizations that succeeded and — perhaps more importantly — our experience with projects that failed to meet expectations.
You may want to add a few tips to the list or add your own insights. Some points may be obvious to experienced executives or to IS professionals. We’ve tried to make the list and explanations both simple and comprehensive.
There are many examples that contradict generalities and stereotypes. No offense is intended toward any group or individual by using stereotypical examples of "IS folks" and "business folks."
The Business Side vs. The Technology Side
"CIOs still feel besieged," the headline blares. "Top executives are still hounding CIOs about information systems’ value for the dollar and IS alignment with business needs," according to a Computerworld article. CIOs complain that they don’t have adequate resources; executives want more value for the dollar. Both sides seem to feel their needs are misunderstood — often blaming their problems on forces outside their control.
Many of the difficulties faced by Information Systems/Information Technology (IS/IT) managers and staff result from miscommunication, leading to confusion and unproductive results. Many high-dollar, mission-critical projects are started with great fanfare, then somehow fail to achieve their objectives. People become disillusioned; fingers are pointed and careers are jeopardized — on the business side and on the IS side.
Business people often wind up with incomplete systems and new programs delivered late, which then are blamed for delays in getting the "truly important" work done. Users do not understand the "black-box" of IS and are often afraid to challenge the wisdom of the technical folks.
IS folks tend to feel that users do not appreciate them. Many of them feel also overworked with impossible deadlines imposed upon them.
Users know they are often dependent on IS to accomplish their job, yet are unable to communicate their needs to the IS folks who design systems according to their understanding of users’ specifications, which often turn out to be not what the users really wanted. When it comes to new projects, the business folks feel that only they have the real handle on corporate priorities and that they should control corporate re-engineering efforts.
IS folks accuse upper management of constantly changing priorities, failing to support the IS folks, seeking outside advice without the participation of IS, not giving the IS manager a seat at the Executive Council, then criticizing IS for failing to deliver against corporate goals.
Many IS folks feel unappreciated or that the "plum" jobs go to outside contractors while they are stuck with the unglamorous maintenance chores. They often feel that management takes them for granted. Many CIOs and IS directors feel that they do understand business already and — since they also know about technology — they are the best group to lead corporate-wide re-engineering efforts.
Is there a middle ground or will this constant war of the resources kill any chance for mutual understanding?
Is there a way to blend the talents of both the business side of the house and the IS side of the house so that everyone gains from the experience?
As the move toward more efficient business increases — through the major restructuring, wide-spread corporate re-engineering efforts and the move to client/server or Internet-based applications — the need for better working relationships becomes even more important.
For the survival of IS and for the business side to utilize the vast benefits possible from new technologies, it is time to stop the war and move toward productive teamwork.
One way to bring the two sides together is through successful project management and executive commitment to technology projects.
All current research shows that the most successful IS projects are those that have good advance planning, good project management, the right people assigned to the project and a committed Executive Sponsor.
From the confusion that still exists between the business side and the IS side of most organizations, there seems to be a viable opportunity for improvement by more clearly defining the role of the Executive Sponsor.
This article provides some guidelines for the people who may find themselves asked to play the role of Executive Sponsor. IS directors can use the list to open a discussion with their business executives — hopefully providing an opportunity for more understanding.
Business executives can use the list to open a discussion with their CIO about how the two sides can better work together.
Each of these tips is explained in more depth.Tip 1: Understand What Makes Projects Succeed or Fail
Project Success Factors
There is massive research on what makes projects succeed and fail. Why then do projects continue to fail at alarming rates?
Only 16 % of IS projects were completed on time and within budget, according to a 1995 Computerworld report. In general, the situation has not improved in the years since that report.
The Year 2000 effort was a major success for the technology community and the business community. It stands as a stunning example of what can be done with committed people and resources working together. In that massive world-wide effort, people were able to focus their energy on the task at hand and did accomplish a very challenging goal. The many lessons learned from that effort need to be applied to more projects in the future.
Some projects start out doing all the right things, then get into trouble. Others simply meander along without any clear direction — "guided" by people hoping that things will somehow fix themselves. Successful projects seems like a well-oiled machine — arriving on target, within budget and meeting user expectations.
What makes one project succeed ahead of schedule where another fails miserably?
Known Success Factors
Known Factors that Lead to Project Failure
A key responsibility of the Executive Sponsor is to provide high-level guidance to the implementation team and to be the project’s champion within the organization. The sponsor must be constantly encouraging the team, yet watching for potential bumps in the road that might derail a project.
Indicators of a High-Risk Project
If any of the high-risk factors exist, the project starts with a considerable handicap. Obviously, projects with multiple high-risk factors have a higher handicap.
The Executive Sponsor may have to supplement the project team (both technical staff and users) with more experienced people — with consultants or others in the organization — who have been through a major project similar in scope to the new project.
A Big Red Flag
Individual egos get in the way of good teamwork. If this happens, the project may have to be stopped until changes are made or sufficient training is done to insure that people can work together as a team.
The most elegant hardware and the most sophisticated system cannot overcome people’s resistance to accept the finished product.
The value of having the right people on the team cannot be over-emphasized.
Successful projects occur because the right people are involved — not because of hardware, software, networks, spiffy screen design or any other technical wonders.
It is always people who make the project work. If the people are not committed to the project, to getting the right things done and working together, no amount of fancy technology can make the project succeed.
One of the inherent dangers in technology projects is to becoming caught up in the technology and ignoring the people issues.
The Executive Sponsor must be a people-oriented person first and foremost. If they are able to work well with technology issues, so much the better.
The Executive Sponsor must be an inside coach, constantly promoting the positive aspects of the project to the team as well as helping other executives understand how the new project will benefit them.
The value of consultants is their extensive experience and unique skills gained through many different projects and many different organizations.
Often, jealousy arises on the part of internal staff, who feel they have been bypassed by people who are outsiders. This may happen in user departments as well as in the IS department.
Consultants are most effective when they become part of the team, working along side the internal staff and sharing their experience so that when they leave, the internal staff has developed new skills.
If consultants do only a specified job (i.e., implement and install a new system) without passing along their knowledge to internal staff, the organization is weaker after they leave — not stronger. This occurs when the organization becomes dependent on consultants doing the work for them if staff does not take the initiative to improve their own skills as the project progresses.
When internal staff does not accept consultants as valued, respected members of the team, the entire team suffers. Some consultants actually promote this type of separation by holding themselves aloof from their clients.
This is similar to a baseball team composed of nine players who are more concerned about their individual priorities than the priorities of the entire team. They do not assist each other nor provide automatic backup unless forced. A high-energy baseball team functions as a fluid force, where the actions of the individual players flow as a unified movement of the team rather than as individuals who wait for someone to tell them what to do next.
A highly productive project team functions in the same way. Accomplishing this takes commitment on the part of internal staff, external consultants, the Executive Sponsor and the support of the organizational culture.
A one-time pep talk at the beginning of the project is not the answer. Ongoing leadership by example and continuous efforts to encourage and reward team participation are vital to a well-functioning team, just as constant coaching is needed to keep a winning baseball team performing at their peak ability.
The Executive Sponsor should have the human understanding, team-building skills and communications skills as well as the broad organizational vision to be able to prevent such divisions from occurring or to nip them in the bud should they surface during the project.
Discord in the team continue can destroy the project or lead to crippling cost overruns due to lost productivity.
Leadership is a fuzzy quality — people know it when they see it, yet have difficulty describing it exactly. Leadership can be demonstrated in many different ways. The result of effective leadership is a powerful, well-functioning team that accomplishes its goals.
One of the ways IS can help their Executive Sponsor is to participate actively in regularly scheduled project status meetings with the sponsor.
Many organizations have established an Executive Technology Council or Project Steering Committee for this purpose. At these meetings, key members of the team should discuss the progress of the project, identify and resolve outstanding issues and brain-storm ways to make sure the project stays on target.
Each person must be willing to understand the pressures faced by the others, then develop ways to deal with whatever challenges arise.
One-on-one meetings between the project manager and the Executive Sponsor must occur regularly in addition to the larger group meetings.
The one-on-one meetings must be an open forum and a vehicle for developing rapport between the members of the project. All parties must be willing to be honest and candid with each other and listen to the others.
Trust develops over time. Nothing builds trust between people better than a consistent working relationship devoted to solving mutual problems.
Leadership starts by setting a good example. When executives and IS work well together, their staff gets lessons in the right way to do things. For all the good words managers might deliver about motivation, nothing motivates and inspires people better than seeing a leader in action and watching how it is done.
Leadership by Example is the by-word of all great leaders.
Advice to the Executive Sponsor:
If you don’t know anything about technology, don’t pretend you do — ask IS management for help or ask another executive who is computer literate to help you.
If you know a little bit, be willing to learn and try to apply what you learn to your day-to-day responsibilities.
Be willing to learn from IS and be willing to share your business knowledge with them.
Try to find a middle ground where you can build both your own knowledge and develop a solid working relationship with a technology-savvy person to assist you when you need information.
Advice to IS Management and Staff:
If you think you are the expert on technology and you cannot understand why business people have trouble with technology, you are already in deep trouble with business management.
Be aware than many people are still intimidated by technology. Your arrogant attitude will not help you or them. Business people constantly complain about IS folks and their inability to speak in anything other than computer-speak.
Be willing to explain things step-by-step in ways that make the business people feel comfortable with you.
For top executives, sending someone from IS to their home or office for one-on-one tutoring helps the executive learn by making them feel more comfortable.
Find someone who is a good teacher and can earn the respect of business executives, then designate them as executive liaison — someone who will not laugh at an executive’s simple questions or think they are stupid for asking.
Another approach is to find an executive who is already computer literate to act as a "coach" for those executives who are still technology novices.
Remember, teach executives how to use technology in their job; don't expect them to become techno-wizards.
Keep it simple and easy until they ask for more advanced instruction. If at all possible, streamline menus and sign-on procedures to make their technology experience as painless as possible.
They want bottom-line answers, not computer-speak!
Occasionally, the sponsor must provide discipline to the team by setting a high standard and refusing to shortcut quality controls. Projects often face delays as people underestimate the work required or find they want to change or add features after they start seeing the prototypes.
Details of a project are often missed in the early stages when people are anxious to get started, rather than spend time and energy in planning.
Successful projects allocate a significant amount of time to developing plans, documenting needs, specifying deliverables, developing data models and reviewing business procedures that will be impacted.
The planning process alone may take 20-25% of the entire project budget. Shortcuts in the initial stages often lead to delays and revisions in the future — potentially derailing the entire project if major aspects are overlooked in the early stages.
Most project plans are developed by estimating the tasks and schedules needed, then computing a budget. Many forget to add significant time for project management, which can add another 25% to the project.
This is an area where many companies try to cut corners by assigning someone who does not have prior management experience or by expecting the project manager to manage the project in their spare time while doing other critical project tasks. That is a recipe for failure.
The Executive Sponsor must be sensitive to the challenges every project faces and the human tendency to minimize change. Users often want to force a new system to fit their old office procedures, rather than change the way they do business. The IS folks may hold firm in their commitment to technology standards, completely disregarding the user’s desires.
The Executive Sponsor must be willing to watch for signs of resistance and deal with them promptly before they turn into unconscious sabotage.
Human beings resist changes that are forced upon them. New technology systems, corporate re-engineering, massive down-sizing and general society pressures make it even harder for people to deal with the day-to-day pressures of corporate life. Understanding the diverse humanistic forces at work requires different skills than building a new widget or building a new system.
A natural tendency to make a project "better" as it develops can lead to Scope Creep (an ever-expanding project scope).
As the new system grows and becomes available for testing, many people will ask for little improvements. If the system has been well designed in the early planning and specification stages, these changes should be minimal. If users have very different expectations than the system can deliver, disillusionment sets in quickly.
For example, in today’s Windows-oriented world where people have computers at home or see exciting examples in the media, installing an old-style character-based system could lead to mass revolt in the office. Even if the IS department has not promised a fancy new system, there may be a high level of expectation on the part of users.
When new systems fail to deliver on their expectations, IS pays the price of failure in lost credibility and resource allocation. The organization pays the price of widespread dissatisfaction and low productivity. These issues must be identified before the project begins, not after it is rolled out. There are many ways to anticipate such problems as a project develops and be proactive to avoid many commonly-known problems.
Many organizations use prototyping to develop specifications and manage user expectations.
For example, a model computer screen (prototype) is developed so users can actually see how it might look. This way, expectations and usage patterns can be uncovered very early. Then, the system can be built behind the scenes.
With early involvement by many people on a small scale, users develop a sense of what is coming and have more time to adapt. IS folks know the user interface is acceptable early on. There are fewer surprises down the road.
Advance preparation saves pain all around.
Strong teams develop through regular contact and shared experiences.
Regular meetings of the Project Steering Committee (Technology Council or whatever it is called in your organization) provide a vehicle for problem resolution and status updates.
In long-term projects, the meetings may be weekly in the beginning when specifications are being developed, then move to monthly while the technology is being developed, then move to weekly again as people prepare for the final stages.
A formal agenda and a regular meeting time helps people stay on topic and move the meetings along efficiently. The chair of the committee must be committed to the overall process of guiding the meetings so they are effective, yet stay on topic.
As people become more familiar with each other, meetings can degenerate to complaint sessions or to off-topic discussions. Each person’s views need to be respected. However, sometimes off-line meetings need to address those concerns in order to keep the project on course.
Managing steering committee meetings effectively includes individual discussions in advance of the meeting between the Executive Sponsor, IS management and individual project managers. The results of these individual discussions guide the steering committee meetings.
Walking into a high-level meeting and being hit unexpectedly with a number of critical issues is not a good way to maintain rapport among team members. If a critical issue comes up between meetings, don't wait to discuss it with the key people involved.
Responsibility includes: delivering on plans and commitments, being part of the team, acknowledging when there are problems and being willing to adjust personal priorities in favor of the overall project priorities.
Each member of the team must understand the rules of the project. And they must understand the penalties for not following the rules. Too often, threats are made that have no force behind them (Management by Intimidation), so people learn that the threats have no value.
Most people work best when they know where they stand. When they understand what the rules are, what the rewards are and what the penalties are for not following the rules, they are more likely to act consistently. In organizations where "rules" are based on personal agenda, ego or unpredictable actions, motivation and productivity are impossible to maintain.
The team leaders (the Executive Sponsor and the Project Manager) are responsible for clearly defining what is expected from each member of the team.
Members of the team must understand and agree to their responsibilities. The team is also responsible for maintaining consistency. If someone needs help, they are responsible for asking for help. If someone sees that another needs help, they are responsible for trying to assist. If someone sees that work is being done badly or improperly, they are responsible for reporting the problem to someone who can deal with it.
Occasionally, a person doesn’t fit in a project team. While every effort should be made to help them participate, sometimes the person must be reassigned to a more appropriate job or fired from the project. Compassion and understanding cannot overcome incompetence.
The sooner the reasons for someone’s lack of performance are identified and dealt with, the sooner the entire team can return to productivity. Ignoring a person who is not contributing or who weakens the entire team effort is not acceptable. The entire team cannot be placed at risk because of one person’s inability to perform, for whatever reason.
Certain things must be designated as intolerable: any abusive treatment or language, any discriminatory or derogatory words or actions, violence (including verbal assault) or any other physically inappropriate behavior. Should intolerable actions or language occur, management must deal with the person immediately and remove them from the team.
Provide leadership not micro-management to the team.
If you have hired the best project manager and developed a good rapport with them, you should trust them to handle the day-to-day tasks.
Ask them to report on how well they are performing against your long-term goals and expect them to ask for your assistance on strategic and political issues.
Provide guidance to make sure that the focus on business objectives is maintained.
This is a touchy issue to balance. If you have children, you know how hard it is to let them grow and develop on their own when you think you know better ways.
If you’ve developed a good working relationship with the project manager and the team, you get regular feedback on progress and the project is progressing as it should, then you should not interfere in the details.
For projects to succeed, the team must feel that they are able to do things their way and that their experience is highly valued. If you have appointed good people in the first place, they don't need someone meddling with their project.
However, if there are differences between your strategic goals and the direction you see the project moving, it’s time to pull in the reins a little.
If you are faced with political pressure and the project becomes delayed, make sure the project manager understands the implications to them personally, as well as the implications for the entire project.
Sometimes, the project manager or a team member simply cannot handle the project at a certain point. When that happens. you must be prepared to intervene and take corrective action.
Occasionally, the dynamics or communications between a sponsor and the project manager (or the team) create a situation that isn’t working as well as it should. That’s the time to ask for help — from other executives who’ve encountered similar situations, from the Human Resources department or from trusted advisors.
According to much personality research done in the last few years, the prevalent (or "typical") personality type of IS folks is often very different from the prevalent personality type of executives and business-oriented people. This difference can create challenging personality conflicts as well as communication difficulties. To resolve these differences, some training and/or individual consulting may be required to come to a mutual understanding of goals.
Writing off conflicts (or differences in perspective) as simply "personality conflicts" does not get to the root of the problem. Ignoring the problem will only make it grow worse and the project will suffer.
Dealing with conflicts as quickly and as thoroughly as possible is the best solution. If it is not dealt with, the success of the project can be at risk.
Each person and each personality type brings something of value to the team as a whole. When everyone learns to value the differences and understand on each person's strengths, the entire team benefits.
People naturally want to please their "superiors." This desire to please can lead to overly optimistic project forecasts.
Lack of experience in similar projects also leads to underestimating implementation time. This where having the best project manager, the most experienced team members and a good schedule/task management system pays huge dividends.
The best project control tools provide for both capture of tasks completed against expectations and a projection of the success rate for the balance of the project.
For example, the initial project plan contains a list of tasks and the expected time for each task. Over time as tasks are completed, the expected time is compared against the actual time. If tasks tend to take 10% longer than planned, the remaining task estimates are automatically increased by 10% to reflect a more realistic effort.
If tasks are taking 50% longer than expected, then perhaps future tasks should be increased by 50% as well.
Industry research shows IS projects frequently taking 200% or 300% longer than expected. The failure rate for projects never implemented is alarmingly high (31%).
There are many valid reasons for projects taking longer than expected, some due to changes in priorities, agreed-upon expansion of scope or changes in technology offering new solutions. Many projects take longer simply due to bad management and poor productivity of the people involved.
Don’t be lulled into thinking your organization is different unless you have facts to support a better success rate.
Set tight goals, be realistic about your expectations and be prepared to change over time when appropriate.
When adjustments must be made, re-check your project assumptions and get all the facts to avoid constant adjustments in the future.
One of the reasons projects take longer than expected is that sometimes small problems are ignored.
People change their mind as they begin to see the results of the new system. They "thought" they wanted a report one way, then realize they need something different — leading to changes in task estimates, resources and schedules.
People assigned to the project change — and the requirements may change as a result — leading to more delays. As inexperienced users become more educated, they find that their procedures must change. That can lead to system requirements changes — and more delay.
Time spent in the beginning of a project in system design, business process review and prototyping saves more than its weight in gold later on.
Prototyping sample screens and sample reports so people can "touch and feel" the end product before the system is created can unearth many of small issues. When people see what they will get, they begin to get excited about the final result. It becomes more real for them, rather than a system that will be imposed on them "some day." And, they have something tangible they can begin to work with in changing their business operations.
Enthusiasm on the part of users is a major hurtle to overcome — the earlier it starts, the better the project will be.
IS people often fail to do the "people" parts of the system, feeling that their only job is to build a good computer system. In reality, the system will only be successful if people are willing to use it.
As the Executive Sponsor, your job is make sure that the people issues and solutions are as important as the technical issues and solutions. And, that small problems do not grow into big problems.
Constant communication and trust between you, the project manager and members of the team is needed so that people are willing to tell the truth and deal with the consequences of issues as they occur.
Each organization has its own unique corporate culture or corporate personality.
As Executive Sponsor, understanding the strengths and weaknesses of your organization is your job. Translating that culture into guidance for the project manager and team is also your job.
Using the knowledge of the culture to create a successful project is both your job and the job of the project manager. You must both be "reading from the same script and singing the same song."
Projects often fail simply because the technical team fails to understand the corporate culture or the Executive Sponsor does not guide the team through the political land mines that exist in most organizations.
For example, the project steering committee (or IT Senior Governance committee) expects regular reports on the progress of large projects. If a technical person makes a highly technical presentation, the audience may not understand or appreciate what is being said. If the Executive Sponsor does not understand the implication of technical problems, they may present the wrong impression of the project's stability.
You — as the Executive Sponsor — should make most high level presentations on the project’s status. You must be able to understand and explain which problems are serious and which are not. Or you must groom people to help you make presentations in a way that can be understood by everyone on the committee.
There will come a time when you must get something done politically that the team cannot accomplish on its own.
Since your political power must be used sparingly, be sure of the situation and all the facts.
For example, a business section manager is not working well with the project team or is not making changes in their office to prepare for a new system. You could create havoc with them directly or with their line executive (using a "big hammer") or you could draw the executive into a conversation with the goal of helping everyone be successful (using the "velvet glove on an iron hand" approach). Ask for ideas about how to break through the roadblocks. Give them a chance to handle the problem of their departmental resistance and report back to you before stepping on them.
Involving other executives in solving a problem goes a lot further toward to enhancing your own political clout than having a lot of people think you’re just ruthless!
If you are the executive being approached due to resistance in one of your people, work with those involved to create feasible solutions rather than creating a new turf battle.
The political benefits of a teamwork approach extend far beyond today’s issues to building a reputation as being strong, yet fair and reasonable.
One of your most important roles is to champion the project. Talk about it to others and express excitement and enthusiasm about it.
If you have problems, work with the appropriate people to resolve them. Don’t bad-mouth the project or the people or you will look like the loser.
Remember Tom Sawyer and his enthusiasm about painting the fence. When he complained, no one wanted to help. When he got excited about painting the fence, everyone wanted to join in. People everywhere react in similar ways: the Martyrs are left to suffer alone and the Pied Pipers draw a crowd.
Be the Pied Piper, not the Martyr.
Positive actions must be acknowledged and rewarded in appropriate ways. Small, consistent actions mean a lot to most people. A "good morning" smile, "thank you" for a job well done, needed supplies being available and a general level of respect for team members can do far more to keep the team motivated than a party once a year in the grand ballroom.
Certainly, milestone celebrations with fancy speeches are nice. However, many people would rather have a day off, an engraved memento or an award they can frame. Others would prefer money or time off with their family.
Structure the rewards so that people feel appreciated. Take some time to work out ways to show support for your team.
In everything you do, set a good example.
Congratulations on a successful project!
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Page updated: June 05, 2009 Institute for Management Excellence, Copyright © 2001 All rights reserved
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