How to build a partnership for project success

arms of two businessmen shaking hands

Which partnership has the most influence on a project’s success? Though it may not be top of your list, the one between project manager and sponsor (SRO) is arguably the most critical.

A positive working relationship between these two roles will help keep the project on track, prevent rework and ensure a more successful outcome.

Early engagement is key; so too is creating a culture of trust and open communication between both parties. But what needs to be in place for this to happen

Establish the ground rules

Jane Nichols

Agree the principles of the working relationship at the start of the project. This only needs to be broad brush stokes, essentially outlining the responsibilities of the project manager in terms of delivery and those of the sponsor in terms of benefits realization and being the figure head. This will provide invaluable clarity and understanding.

It can take the form of a short, written “charter” if the partnership is new, or a simple chat will most likely suffice for those who have worked together in the past. Whichever route is taken, its purpose should be for both parties to agree the remit of each role so that they complement and support each other.

Generally, the sponsor needs to concentrate on providing support, confidence and advice, while the project manager should focus on fulfilling delivery against agreed critical success factors. But all too often, these boundaries get blurred.

Sponsors can overstep the mark and get too involved with the detail of a project. This is not only counterproductive, but can also be a dangerous influence – particularly if they are out of touch with day-to-day operations.

Similarly, project managers can sometimes make a critical decision on their own rather than consulting their sponsor, often because there has been little interaction to date.

These difficulties can be avoided by taking the time to talk through how the partnership will work from the outset. It’s not a complex formula and may seem obvious, but it’s often missed in the rush to move a project forward.

Key behaviours

Translating this agreement into an effective working relationship requires a commitment from both parties. For the project manager, this means:

  • Being honest: however tempting it may be to handle or even occasionally postpone a challenging activity without informing the sponsor, these things will come to light eventually. Most sponsors don’t like surprises. So far better to talk and resolve any issues.
  • Raising issues promptly: don’t defer difficult conversations. Things happen and usually need to be escalated, so bring in the sponsor at point of need. 
  • Asking for support: the sponsor has influence beyond that of a project manager; this can be hugely beneficial in terms of stakeholder engagement

While for the sponsor, it involves:

  • Being approachable: don’t just ask for the good news. Your project manager needs to know that they can come to you for support when things don’t go to plan.
  • Paying attention: take the time to listen when problems are raised and help to resolve them in a timely fashion.
  • Being realistic: there is no merit in putting the project manager under undue pressure and imposing impossible deadlines. This is a partnership and you are in it together.

Viewed in this way, it’s clear that while these two roles may appear to be very different, they are in fact two sides of the same coin. So, proactively taking steps to work together in this way can only benefit the project and help to secure a successful outcome.

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