How To Manage A Project When The Sponsor Is Missing In Action (MIA)

Jun 10, 2015
6 Min Read

Sometimes project sponsors are appointed to projects by senior leadership and for various reasons just aren't engaged in the project. Low engagement can also happen when a sponsor thinks a project is "set it and forget it." This can be bad news for you if you’re the project manager.

A disengaged or missing in action (MIA) project sponsor can make it tough for you as the project manager to move an important project from initiation to execution. The number one reason why a project needs a sponsor is to send signals to the organization that, “yes, this is an important project and I care about it.”

After all, people pay much more attention to what their leaders do than what they say. And if the sponsor is behaving like he doesn’t care, the rest of the staff won’t either.

So how do you “make” someone be a good sponsor? Well, the bad news is you can’t. But the good news is there are some tactics you can use to get what you need from the sponsor so your project can be a success.

1) Find Out What Makes The Sponsor Tick

One of the best things you can do is get into the mind of the sponsor by determining what they are passionate about. Make sure you make it about them, not about you or your project. Are they all about numbers? Appeal to them by focusing on how your project will impact numbers in a positive way and make them look good in the process. Are they all about people? Show them how it will make their people (and ultimately them) look really good and you’ll tap into their heart. Are they all about process? Figure out how the processes will be improved by your project and share progress along the way. This may take a bit of extra effort on your part, but will pay off big time in the long run.

2) Make The Sponsor Role Easy

Some people just don’t know how to go about being a great sponsor. That provides you with some teachable moments. And you will make them shine in the process. Many sponsors may fear that being in the “sponsor role” could damage their career if they do the wrong thing. You won’t get cooperation from someone who feels they might commit political suicide by stepping up. At the beginning of the project write down a role description just like you would any other role on your project. Make sure to include all of your expectations for the duration of the project. Meet with the sponsor and have a discussion about each component. Train them if there are areas they aren’t skilled in. Talk about, and get agreement on, those areas where they will be held accountable and get their buy in. As the project progresses, point out where they are knocking it out of the ballpark and provide a bit of extra training in those areas where they aren’t as strong as they should be. Find frequent opportunities to make them shine.

3) Cover Your “You Know What”

You had to know this one was coming. Yes, a project with a disengaged sponsor is going to need an extra dose of documentation. More than your average project. Document everything and don’t even think about getting lax in this area. Make sure all status, issue, and resolution reports are well documented and shared with the appropriate team members along with the sponsor and any other management person who is involved. Everything you do should be well documented and circulated to the appropriate people. This won’t be a whole lot of fun for you, but a disengaged sponsor can come back to bite as a project moves toward completion. You want to have all your ducks in a row and be prepared if that happens.

Have you ever managed a project with an MIA sponsor? What did you do to make the project a success? I’d love to hear your tips below.

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