Project Sponsorship: It’s Action and Position

Posted by Paula Alsher on Thu, Sep 20, 2018 @ 12:19 PM

You’ve heard it time and time again: Project Sponsorship is the most critical success factor in ensuring a fast and successful implementation of any type of business change. But Sponsorship is not just one executive leader who signs the check and authorizes the launch of an initiative. It’s also not a steering committee of key leaders tasked with making strategic decisions along the way. Project Sponsorship

Project Sponsorship is the “cascade” of managers, level by management level, through the organization, in every area affected by the change. Each of these leaders must be Expressing, Modeling and Reinforcing their personal and public commitment to the change with their direct reports. It is this cascade of active Sponsorship that drives the speed of implementation.


Sponsorship is Action and Position

Managers are automatically Sponsors if they have anyone reporting to them that is impacted by the change. It is important to note, though, a manager can only be a Sponsor for people in his/her chain of command. For example, on a technology change, the CIO can only Sponsor that project in IT; s/he can’t be the Sponsor for the customer service group who will also be using the new technology. You need to have active Sponsorship in all the business/clinical areas that are being impacted.

TIP: In our AIM Accreditation course, we teach a disciplined process that produces a Key Role Map. This fundamental deliverable is a graphic depiction of who and where your Sponsors are based on identifying all the Target groups impacted by your change. As Don Harrison, IMA President, said in our recent webinar on Sponsorship, “Once you take the time to do a Key Role Map, you will never look at your projects the same way again.”

In addition to a position on the org chart, there are three very specific actions that must be demonstrated daily by all Sponsors within the cascade. They must:


  • Express commitment to the change, by what they say both publicly and privately
  • Model commitment to the new behaviors, by the resources they allocate, and the decisions they make
  • Reinforce the new behaviors, by applying rewards and consequences as behaviors are observed

Equally important, there must be alignment in what a Sponsor says, does and reinforces. However, reinforcement is the real power lever for driving change faster. We break it down like this: 10% of effective Sponsorship depends on what leaders say; 20-30% depends on what leaders model; and a whopping 50-60% depends on what a leader reinforces daily with his or her direct reports.


Lining Up Multiple Sponsors

To drive change faster, leaders must cascade the change down through the organization. Think of it as a staircase where the change moves down one step at a time. If you miss a step, the change can fall into the infamous “black hole of failed changes never to be seen again.”

But working with multiple Sponsors in different areas of the organization who all bring their own visions, political agendas and "Frames of Reference" can be a challenge! The way to address this is to have common goals and forced inter-dependence among the Sponsors. And yes, sometimes this takes locking the Sponsors in the same room until they agree!

When you have multiple Sponsors, agreement must be made on:

  • Strategic Intent – All Sponsors involved in the project must agree on the time, budget, technical, business and human objectives.
  • Strategic Priority – Your project can’t be priority #1 for HR, but priority #19 for the business unit; that won’t work. The priority may vary slightly from business unit to business unit, but the project needs to at least be high enough on everyone’s list to hit the radar screen!
  • Inter-dependencies – Agreement must be made on what happens if one business unit changes and the others do not.

How To Get Sponsors To Do What is Needed

First, all Sponsors need to be educated on their roles and responsibilities. Many Sponsors are unaware of the 3 best practice behaviors good Sponsors must consistently demonstrate. Then, Change Agents must use Sponsor Contracting to contract with individual Sponsors for what they specifically need from the Sponsor at a particular point in time in the project.

But remember, your Sponsor’s Frame of Reference counts! The universal motivation for Sponsors is for their project to go fast, be cheap and get results. Don Harrison, developer of the AIM Change Management Methodology puts it like this, “Every Sponsor wants to pay the least price possible to get the best results possible.”

That’s why we say when you contract with your Sponsor, talk from their Frame of Reference. If you are talking about change management, managing resistance or building target readiness their eyes are going to glaze over. Instead, talk about how to mitigate the risks on their projects and what it will take to deliver value realization for their investment faster. Be sure when you ask for something from your Sponsor, you are protecting their time, money, energy and reputation. Make your Sponsor look great and you are far more likely to get what you are asking for.

Change management is a daily exercise in power and politics. Change Agents need to be able to influence both Sponsors and Targets of a change. But, because Sponsors control the rate of the change through their own behavior, Next Generation Change Agents need to spend less time trying to convince the Targets of the logic and rationale behind a change, and more time leveraging their Sponsors to be actively Expressing, Modeling and most importantly, Reinforcing the change with their direct reports.

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Topics: Sponsorship, Leadership