The first principle of successful project management is to identify the customer for the project. This person (and it needs to be a person) may also be referred to as the client or the project sponsor. I prefer the last of these terms because it gives a good description of what a good project customer should do and that is the term I shall be using from now on.
The role of the sponsor is to be accountable for ensuring the project achieves its through-life benefits. (I shall be using the term “accountable” a lot in these posts because accountability is key to project management success.) The sponsor therefore owns the business case. It is the sponsor’s job to define what the project is, and what it is not; to ensure that the investment case is optimised, robust and that it is achieved.
It might seem simple to identify the sponsor but appearances can be deceptive. Here is a list of people or groups who are not the project sponsor:
- “The Board” is often identified as the sponsor. It is inappropriate to make the board the project sponsor: the role of the board is to constructively challenge the investment case, so they cannot own that case; the board is a group of people – the sponsor should be someone with individual, personal accountability; the board cannot provide the focus and day to day attention that a project needs from its sponsor; the board needs to maintain an objective distance from the project to allow it to make dispassionate decisions.
- The end user or operator of the plant or system cannot be the sponsor. They may not understand the wider business economics and will naturally prioritise operability and maintainability over through-life economic benefit.
- The project manager cannot be the sponsor. The role of the project manager will be described in a later post but his or her skills relate to delivering the project, not the overall project benefits. Furthermore, the separation of duties between the sponsor and the project manager is a pre-requisite for successful project governance.
- The sponsor should not be any kind of group or team. For successful project management, individuals need to feel the heat of personal accountability. Groups of people will deal with their individual responsibilities and assume someone else is looking after those things for which they are jointly responsible.
Typically, the project sponsor should be someone from within the part of the business that owns the assets to be built and operated. He or she should be someone with experience and gravitas that are consistent with the magnitude of the investment, who can both support and challenge the project manager and be a champion for the project in dealings with the various project stakeholders, internal and external.