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Surviving project change

Neil Timmins
April 29, 2011

3. Lack of sponsorship empowerment and accountability

One of the main causes of project failure is lack of adequate business leadership and support. Theoretically, ultimate accountability for ROI from a project rests with the sponsor, an appointment that should align to delegated levels of spend approval authority, for example, the higher the project investment, the more senior the sponsor’s position within the organisation.

It is this level of authority to make investment decisions that should enable the sponsor to make quicker, calculated decisions regarding project change options, based on the currency of business events and information presented by the project manager. So, why is it that this logic is not adopted and/or applied on all projects? What are the solution options?

Assuming agreed total project cost tolerances for change apply, there are numerous reasons why sponsors with appropriate levels of business delegated financial authority do not feel enabled or compelled to authorise project change decisions in a timely manner during significant organisational change.

On the basis of my experience and observations, some of the key reasons are:

  • Poorly defined and managed project portfolios that are slow to react and reflect immediate changes in strategic business priorities. These portfolios are often leveraged by sponsors to defer decision-making and play project investment trade-off games with their peers.
  • A significant shift in stakeholder focus towards maintenance of business operations, which also makes it difficult to effectively implement an agreed succession plan.
  • Some sponsors are not prepared to break with rigorous project management methodology for fear of the consequences of making a poor decision that cannot be defended by process.
  • Conscientious objection by the PMO and/or project manager can discourage sponsors from making swift project change decisions without rigorously following process.
  • A lack of confidence in their ability to make such key decisions quickly, often a manifestation of poor levels of engagement during project delivery.
  • A failure of immature project organisations to hold business sponsors accountable for the realisation of tangible project benefits signed off in the business case, often as a consequence of benefits realisation plans being poorly managed post-project implementation.
  • Some sponsors are reluctant to have the spotlight return on the original benefit calculations and assumptions that underpinned the initial investment.
  • Often benefit ownership assigned to individuals in a specific role is not transferred as part of the role’s accountability when senior positions are vacated and replaced. How many stay in the same position for five years or longer nowadays?

Not withstanding the above, there are also directives outside of the sponsors’ control, such as the enforcement of investment decision embargo periods by incoming or incumbent CEOs effective until the turbulence of re-organisation has subsided, which can temporarily disempower sponsors and suspend their accountability.

Professional project management required

Irrespective of the circumstances, however, all a professional project manager can do in these situations is provide clear, objective and ethics-based information to the sponsor for consideration, no matter how confronting to the organisation or potentially tenure/career–limiting to the project manager such disclosures could be.

Ultimately, it is the selfless and fearless application of professional ethics that highlights the mettle and integrity of a project manager, qualities that should be applauded, rewarded and recognised as being synonymous with status and credentials awarded by a professional body. It’s a brand association challenge in an extremely competitive post-GFC market, vital to the personal prosperity of professional project practitioners.

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Neil Timmins
Neil Timmins is a project management professional with 20+ years of program and project management experience across industries as diverse as banking and finance, communications, biotech, IT, transport and events in both the private and public sector. He holds a Master of Science in Management and an Advanced Diploma in Project Management, is a member of the Australian Institute of Project Management and a Certified Practising Project Director (CPPD).
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