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Case: The Invisible Sponsor

As expected, Al did not respond. Fred then decided that he had to pressure Al one way or another into making timely decisions as the project sponsor. Fred then sent an e-mail to Al that stated…

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Some executives prefer to micromanage projects whereas other executives are fearful of making a decision because, if they were to make the wrong decision, it could impact their career. In this case study, the president of the company assigned one of the vice presidents to act as the project sponsor on a project designed to build tooling for a client. The sponsor, however, was reluctant to make any decisions.

Moreland Company was well-respected as a tooling design-and-build company. Moreland was project-driven because all of its income came from projects. Moreland was also reasonably mature in project management. When the previous VP for engineering retired, Moreland hired an executive from a manufacturing company to replace him. The new VP for engineering, Al Zink, had excellent engineering knowledge about tooling but had worked for companies that were not project-driven. Al had very little knowledge about project management and had never functioned as a project sponsor. Because of Al’s lack of experience as a sponsor, the president decided that Al should “get his feet wet” as quickly as possible and assigned him as the project sponsor on a medium sized project. The project manager on this project was Fred Cutler. Fred was an engineer with more than twenty years of experience in tooling design and manufacturing. Fred reported directly to Al Zink administratively.

Fred understood the situation; he would have to train Al Zink on how to function as a project sponsor. This was a new experience for Fred because subordinates usually do not train senior personnel on how to do their job. Would Al Zink be receptive? Fred explained the role of the sponsor and how there are certain project documents that require the signatures of both the project manager and the project sponsor. Everything seemed to be going well until Fred informed Al that the project sponsor is the person that the president eventually holds accountable for the success or failure of the project. Fred could tell that Al was quite upset over this statement. Al realized that the failure of a project where he was the sponsor could damage his reputation and career. Al was now uncomfortable about having to act as a sponsor but knew that he might eventually be assigned as a sponsor on other projects. Al also knew that this project was somewhat of a high risk. If Al could function as an invisible sponsor, he could avoid making any critical decisions.

In the first meeting between Fred and Al where Al was the sponsor, Al asked Fred for a copy of the schedule for the project. Fred responded:

I’m working on the schedule right now. I cannot finish the schedule until you tell me whether you want me to lay out the schedule based upon best time, least cost, or least risk.

Al stated that he would think about it and get back to Fred as soon as possible. During the middle of the next week, Fred and Al met in the company’s cafeteria. Al asked Fred again, “How is the schedule coming along?” and Fred responded as before:

I cannot finish the schedule until you tell me whether you want me to lay out the schedule based upon best time, least cost, or least risk.

Al was furious, turned around, and walked away from Fred. Fred was now getting nervous about how upset Al was and began worrying if Al might remove him as the project manager. But Fred decided to hold his ground and get Al to make a decision. At the weekly sponsor meeting between Fred and Al, once again Al asked the same question, and once again Fred gave the same response as before. Al now became quite angry and yelled out:

Just give me a least time schedule!

Fred had gotten Al to make his first decision. Fred finalized his schedule and had it on Al’s desk two days later awaiting Al’s signature. Once again, Al procrastinated and refused to sign off on the schedule. Al believed that, if he delayed making the decision, Fred would take the initiative and begin working on the schedule without Al’s signature. Fred kept sending e-mails to Al asking when he intended to sign off on the schedule or, if something was not correct, what changes needed to be made. As expected, Al did not respond. Fred then decided that he had to pressure Al one way or another into making timely decisions as the project sponsor. Fred then sent an e-mail to Al that stated:

I sent you the project schedule last week. If the schedule is not signed by this Friday, there could be an impact on the end date of the project. If I do not hear from you, one way or another, by this Friday, I will assume you approve the schedule and I can begin implementation.

The president’s e-mail address was also included in the CC location on the e- mail. The next morning, Fred found the schedule on his desk, signed by Al Zink.

Why do some executives refuse to function as project sponsors?

Executives may hesitate or refuse to function as project sponsors for several reasons. One of the primary concerns, as evident in the case study with Al Zink, is the fear of accountability. Being held responsible for a project’s success or failure can be intimidating, especially if the executive is unfamiliar with the role or if the project has inherent risks. Additionally, executives like Al, who come from non-project-driven environments, may feel overwhelmed due to a lack of knowledge about project management processes and best practices. In hierarchical organizations, the dynamics between senior executives and subordinates can also be a barrier. It might be viewed as unconventional for a junior member to guide or train a senior figure, causing discomfort for the executive as it could appear to threaten their status or authority.

Another reason might be the avoidance of decision-making. Some executives, especially those who fear making the wrong choices, might believe that by avoiding a decision, they are safeguarding themselves from mistakes. This mindset, however, overlooks the fact that inaction can be as harmful as incorrect action. Trust issues or a preference for micromanagement can also come into play. Some executives may feel more at ease being deeply involved in project details rather than adopting the broader oversight role of a sponsor, reflecting a reluctance to delegate authority or a mistrust in the project manager’s capabilities.

To effectively address these issues, organizations should provide clear guidelines on the project sponsor’s role, ensure training is available, and foster a culture that promotes open communication and support. Matching the right executive to the right project, based on their expertise and interest, is also crucial.

Can an executive be “forced” to function as a sponsor?

Yes, an executive can technically be “forced” to function as a sponsor if the organization’s leadership or board mandates it. However, compelling someone into such a pivotal role can be counterproductive. For a project to succeed, the sponsor’s commitment and active engagement are crucial. If an executive is placed in this role against their will or better judgment, their lack of genuine involvement and enthusiasm can adversely affect the project’s momentum and outcome. Furthermore, forced assignments can breed resentment, hinder effective communication, and negatively impact team morale. While organizational hierarchies may allow for such directives, the best outcomes are usually achieved when an executive genuinely understands, accepts, and embraces the responsibilities and significance of the sponsorship role.

Is it right for the sponsor to be the ultimate person responsible for the success or failure of the project?

In many organizational structures, it is indeed appropriate for the sponsor to be the ultimate person responsible for the success or failure of the project. The rationale behind this is that the sponsor typically holds a senior position within the organization and has the authority to allocate resources, make high-level decisions, and influence organizational support for the project. By holding the sponsor accountable, it ensures that there is a vested interest at an executive level to provide the necessary support and oversight to guide the project to success. However, it’s essential to remember that while the sponsor might bear the ultimate responsibility, successful project delivery is a collaborative effort that requires the commitment and expertise of the entire project team. Holding the sponsor accountable doesn’t absolve other team members of their responsibilities; instead, it ensures that there is a clear line of authority and accountability at the highest level.

Were Al Zink’s actions that of someone trying to be an invisible sponsor?

Yes, Al Zink’s actions are indicative of someone attempting to be an invisible sponsor. His hesitance to make decisions, reluctance to sign off on project documents, and overall avoidance of taking a definitive stance on project matters showcase his desire to remain detached and avoid accountability. By delaying responses and hoping the project manager would proceed without his input, Al was trying to benefit from the project’s potential success without bearing the responsibility of its possible failures. This behavior aligns with the tendencies of an invisible sponsor who shies away from active involvement and decision-making.

Did Fred Cutler act appropriately in trying to get Al Zink to act as a sponsor?

Yes, Fred Cutler acted appropriately in his attempts to engage Al Zink in his role as a sponsor. Recognizing the importance of the sponsor’s active involvement for the success of the project, Fred consistently communicated the necessity of Al’s decisions, particularly regarding the project’s schedule. By being clear about the requirements and highlighting the potential consequences of delays, Fred ensured that he maintained the project’s integrity while pushing Al to fulfill his responsibilities.
But including the president in the email might lead to potential conflict between Al and Fred, as it could be perceived as undermining Al’s authority. That is never a good idea. A less confrontational approach could have been for Fred to first have a direct, private discussion with Al about the pressing concerns. While copying the president got immediate results, such tactics should be used judiciously, considering the potential long-term impacts on working relationships.

This case, and questions, is take from the book “Project Management Case Studies – Sixth Edition” – 2022, by Harold Kerzner.

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