Project Management: Living Without Executive Sponsorship

by dj on April 3, 2005

Most texts or seminars on project management take some time to emphasize just how important it is to get an senior executive to "sponsor" your project. As a matter of fact, there is so much emphasis on this salient point that you would almost think that without a great big angel looking over your shoulder, you'd be completely screwed.

However, there's a couple of problems with the tactic of securing an executive sponsor: 1) Executives can leave the company 2) Executives love your project on Monday and forget your name by Thursday 3) Really busy executive already have enough people reporting to them who whine about their problems and want the senior exec to fix things up. They don't need another whiner (sorry, project manager).

This last point is a real important to remember for young bright PMs who have proven themselves a real asset to the organization. Lots of time they end up reporting to senior director or VP. Oh boy, they think, now everytime I have a problem with somebody in the org, I can just bitch to my boss and he'll take care of it.

Wrong-o, my friend! The veep doesn't want to deal with your problems. Heck the veep doesn't even want to take the time to listen to your briefings, unless they are kept very short and to the point. All the veep wants is just a thumbs up every quarter or six months that the project is either completed, or on schedule to be completed.

You want a true friend, buy a dog. You want a mentor, join Toastmasters. Now, if you are the exception to the rule and you have been "lucky" enough to become the veep protege, be REALLY careful about where you step in the organization. As goes the veep, so goes the protege.

Anyways, the REAL reason that you are reporting to a veep who ignores you 99.9% of the time is that is sends a message to the org: Don't try to stab this guy. You see, the classic power politic move in a reasonably large org, when you want to stab a guy, is to get your boss to bitch to his boss about him. I've had a few people try it on me, and if you have a weak boss, it's a very effective way of having your feet cut out from under you. For example, you can never for sure who stuck the dagger between your shoulder blades, you just know that it hurts.

Project managers by the very nature of their role are very susceptible to back-stabbbing. Having them report to senior execs puts a stop to that in two ways. One, nobody is going to have much luck getting their boss to bitch to a VP about a PM, especially if the VP is a very busy person (and most of them are). Two, a PM is rarely going to go the route of having a VP run interference for him (or her) because if a PM can't sort out his own problems, what is the use of the PM? Cripes, that's almost in a PM's job description: Dealing with people who don't report to you and getting them to do stuff that maybe is extra work for them.

Anyways, even if you report to a senior exec in the hierarchy, that's a lot different than actually having a senior exec take an interest in whatever project you're managing, to the point that they bother to acquaint themselves with the details. No, at a certain point, a project must stand on it's own merits, meaning very early on you must ask yourself some very serious questions about actually what you are doing:
1) Would the completion of this project actually benefit the organization in some way?
2) Is this best use of the organization's resources?
3) If we shut this project down tomorrow, would we be screwing a) customers b) other members of the organization c) partners
4) If shutting down this project would end up with somebody getting screwed, can the org make amends at a cheaper price than if we actually went ahead and completed the project?

Note that the answer to question one is almost always yes. I mean, it would be some kind of incredibly bad project that would warrant a "no." Mind you, those projects do actually pop up from time to time, and some of the most valuable PM in an org are those PMs that can take those kinds of projects and kill them dead at very little cost to the company (see questions 3 and 4).

Question two is a harder one to answer. In theory, the PM should always act as the "selfish" agent and try to get the best and most resources for his or her project. It should be the responsibility of the general manager or director or veep to prioritize the projects and make sure that the number one project gets first pick at the best talent, with the number two getting the next crack, and so on....

However in practice, that would lead to innumerable catfights between the project managers and the line managers with the senior executive of the division playing referee. And remember, I've told you before, if there is anything that a good executive hates to do, it's refereeing.

No, if you have a project that is really at the margins, then it's up to you to suck it up take the marginal resources that are offered to you and make lemons out of lemonade. A sign of a good PM is somebody who can take two rookies, and one week's time of a senior engineer and whip together a product that somebody actually wants to pay good money for. A PM who can always get the superstars assigned to his team is just showing that he is a good politician, not a good PM. Beside, there are ALWAYS more PMs lurking about than superstar developers or engineers. So believe me, if there are three superstar engineers in your org, and four PMs who each want a superstar, then the veep might decide that the best solution is to only have three PMs.

Anyways, my opinion on the matter is that it's more fun on the marginal projects anyways. Yes, the young engineers can't estimate the schedule worth a darn, and the marketing ladies allocate $1.99 for your promotional budget and you are subject to one thousand indignities that the boys on the "mission-critical" projects don't have to put up with. But on the small projects, nobody looks over your shoulder, you can take the time to interact with members of your team and really build up a good band of brothers and baby, the project is YOURS. And that's what it's all about.

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