Catalyst or catastrophe? - why your project sponsorship network is oh, so important

Will your transformation project flourish or fail? What is a project sponsorship network? Sara Mo shares some of her experience of project sponsorship and how it is a vital part of people engagement and change management.

As a project manager and change practitioner, I often come across projects where the planning phase has been rushed through - sometimes out of lack of better knowledge and sometimes out of sheer eagerness to get the show on the road. I could go on for hours and talk about the importance of project planning and knowing your stakeholders and their impact (really I could! Let's do so some other time), but for now let's focus on sponsorship as it is a necessary part of both preparation and realisation of a transformation project.

Why the catalyst analogy you might ask? Well, originally coming from the academic world of chemical engineering myself, I love anything remotely reminding me of the nerdiness of academic chemistry for a starter. But that set aside, the catalyst analogy goes further: Simply put, a catalyst is a (chemical) agent which works as a platform for others to meet, react and transform into something new. Usually, the better the catalyst, the less energy input is needed for change to happen. Sometimes a catalyst is needed for anything to happen at all. For this, chemical catalysts hold a special place in the hearts of chemical engineers. And for good reason, we should extend this favour to our project sponsors.

Often, we talk about the project sponsor, but why is this? Yes, of course there should be one person - preferably influential - who will have your project's back through thick and thin. And of course, top management must own the desired effects of a project for others to follow. If your main project sponsor is not engaged to begin with, we must ask ourselves why. If they know the impact of the project and if it affects their business they should be engaged. Not seldom it boils down to lack of information, they may not have grasped the extent of transformation or the wanted effects.

But after ensuring this, how do we make sure that all parts of the organisation are reached by a unanimous voice of inspiration and understanding? Here's where the extended sponsorship network comes in. Let’s be frank: Reducing people engagement to communication and training is a mistake that should not be made. For Swedish-speaking readers, here are a few tips on how to create engagement.

So – the sponsorship network. What if a second line manager is sceptical to the project, or has not been given the right information and tools to jump on board? This person may actively undermine the project and spread a culture which cannot only make the project fail, but prevent future efforts from succeeding. Now, imagine several managers of all levels distributed in the organisation with an either indifferent or sceptical approach. This can quickly escalate to a project risk. One that is far too often overlooked. Whether you call this network your sponsors, change managers, ambassadors or something completely different, they have an enormous impact on creating ownership in the organisation and sustaining long-term change.

Here are a few quick tips on project sponsorship:
• Sponsors should: champion and follow-up business effects of the project, help resolve issues along the way, be a link between project management and decision-makers, remain objective to see the ‘bigger picture’. In short, they should be catalysts!
• …make this role clear to them! Make a deal. What do you expect of them, and what can they expect of you?
• The project sponsor, and the sponsorship network, are all people after all. They too will need some level of change management to be able to play their part. Let them in on the news before the rest, and make it easy for them to be the person you want them to be
• Draw your own sponsorship network map! Assess where your strongest and weakest links are to understand their impact and what risks you are dealing with
• Keep your friends close, and your “enemies” closer. Albeit not enemies per se, influential people who hold a sceptical approach must quickly be involved in the project. They are usually verbal for good reason - they may have information that you lack or they may have been overlooked in the past

Without doubt, understanding the power of project sponsorship networks and using it well can have a catalytic effect.
Don’t hesitate to contact me with any questions on project sponsorship, change management or project management. (Or catalysts for that matter!)


Sara Mo