Tips for engaging and keeping the interest of project sponsors

The project manager’s job of selling a concept or product does not end with the kick-off party. Throughout the life of a project, it is essential to keep the flames of interest and commitment burning in the minds project sponsors. And, that’s a challenge.

Software, in its development stage, is ethereal and vague.  Hours of work are performed to create designs, write code, and build use cases. However, much of that effort is not tangible. The sponsor cannot see or touch the software and must take it on faith that something worthwhile is being done with his money. Building that trust is the job of the project manager.

In the current technology and software industry there are several new “methodologies” that have been introduced to help with the “buy-in” from sponsors and clients.  You should have heard of agile, extreme and Scrum techniques and if you have been around for a while (like certain unnamed people), you have utilized spiral engineering, rapid prototyping, and rapid application development (RAD).  All of these methods and techniques have a common goal of either reducing the scope and/or the timeframe for the individual project or cycle.  While these approaches have proven to make it easier to get the sponsor/ client to participate, they will not do the job all by themselves.  There are still basic techniques and tactics that should be employed by the PM to assure sponsor, stakeholder, or client commitment and buy-in.

So to ensure project sponsors remain interested and committed the project manager needs to do more than provide weekly or monthly progress reports. They need to keep the end result—the vision—alive. Here are a few of the techniques I have found to be helpful in maintaining sponsor’s interest:

  • Context: in status meetings and progress reports show how accomplishments tie back to a function or capability required of the end product. For example don’t just say, “We completed the algorithm for buffer allocation”.  Explain that buffering impacts how quickly processing moves through the system, what trade-offs needed to be made to optimize buffering, and the advantages to the client of the approach taken.
  • Involvement: offer opportunities and encourage participation in team meetings. Give the client or his representative the experience of watching the team wrestle with options and make decisions.  If the sponsor’s representative is technically knowledgeable, ask for their feedback and encourage their participation.
  • Acknowledge expertise: the client or his/her representative has expertise about the effect of the end product on their business. Solicit that feedback and then show how the input from the customer is reflected in the resulting design and product. “You requested the ability to edit the output before it is incorporated into the report, here is how we are providing that capability.”
  • No surprises: there are many good reasons that as the detailed design emerges from top level design, there are changes. You may add a feature, delay a capability, or implement the movement of data in a different way. A task may take longer to complete than initially estimated or the world itself changes. The golden rule for keeping sponsors from losing interest or “going ballistic” is No Surprises! Tell the client as changes are being considered and why. Do not force the customer to find it out for themselves.
  • Communicate often: you do not have to wait for the weekly or monthly report to communicate with the customer. Use informal conversations or email to share (briefly) relevant information about the project or the team.
  • Show – don’t just tell: there are enormous advantages to showing the customer or sponsor the project as it matures. Design your schedule and your modules so that there are many opportunities to demonstrate— such as showing the user interface in pictures, prototypes or use cases; providing example or test cases using input and output of various modules, or showing the integration of the output of one function into the processing of another.

Gaining and maintaining sponsor interest and buy-in is essential to a successful project – no matter which software development method or life cycle is used. I have seen projects that corporate management was ready to slash until the sponsor came in to support the effort. I have also worked with follow-on projects that resulted because the sponsor / customer felt like part of the team and was personally invested in the outcome. And, I have seen projects die a slow and painful death because the sponsor lost interest and everyone involved was going through the motions of fulfilling the minimal contract requirements with no joy or anticipation of the resulting software.

So what is your experience?  Are you now being asked to use agile or Scrum in order to get better sponsor / client engagement?  Is that all it takes? Or do you think the PM needs to do some of thebasic techniques I have described in addition to one of these new methods?

Please leave your comments….

One Response to “Tips for engaging and keeping the interest of project sponsors”

  1. Project Management Hut Says:

    I love this article, I have published a similar article a while ago, tips for dealing with your project sponsor.

    I am interested in republishing this article on PM Hut, please either email me or contact me through the “Contact Us” form on the PM Hut site in case you’re OK with this.

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