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….

Surviving a new boss: 10 Guidelines for briefing your new boss

Congratulations! You have a new boss.  Or – I guess congratulations are in order.

Whether this change is the result of an internal promotion, reorganization, or an acquisition, the project manager is responsible for educating the “newcomer” about the projects for which he or she is responsible. What you say and how you say it is to some extent dependent on your situation. For example, in a small company where the new boss already knows a bit about you and the project, then your task may be a no more than a status update. Other scenarios offer more challenges to a project manager – the person is new to the company or the person is new to project management (Yikes!).

In a large organization, the arrival of a new boss may lead to several days (or weeks) of briefings to get him or her up to speed. You and your project(s) will be among many presenting and the format and flow of the briefing may be dictated beforehand. Other organizations will choose to let the new boss set up briefings when they are ready. KEY ACTION: Don’t wait too long. If the boss does not take the initiative, you should. You want the new boss to know what projects you are managing, what you are doing, and why it is important.  The sooner you start a rapport and relationship with your new boss – the better.

So that first meeting / briefing is critical to your projects and you.  Here are some guidelines for handling your first briefing:

  • Provide context: where does your project fit within the organization. You may use an organization chart or a statement of objectives and tasks as they relate to the company’s mission. Answer the question: Who are the stakeholders (customers or consumers) of your project?
  • Present outcomes first: what will your project provide when it is complete. This is more detailed than just a rehash of your objectives. You will want to focus on the revenue or cost savings that will result from the successful completion of your project.  Think outcomes!!
  • Project status: This is typical status report information that includes schedule, accomplishments, costs against budget, and plans. Be sensitive to your new boss’s knowledge (or lack thereof) of technical terminology and keep this part of the briefing at a fairly high level. Hold off on risks and issues until later in the briefing (if at all). You are still in selling mode at this point.
  • Introduce your team: tell the new boss a small amount about the team members and the project team organization. Identify each person by name and role. Again, an organizational chart may be helpful if you have a large team.
  • Demonstrate: If time allows and you have a quick demonstration of your project doing its magic—show it off. This is the final part of selling your project.  Demos (when short) are always good.
  • Issues and risks: You want your new boss to understand what challenges you face and what conditions present a risk to the successful outcome of the project. It is a very good idea to have solutions ready for each risk and problem you present. A chart that includes probabilities, costs, and mitigation strategies is effective in presenting issues and risks.  If you run short on time – this is one area that can be moved to your second meeting.
  • What does the boss want to know? If you can, find out beforehand what questions the new boss is trying to answer about the projects and be sure to address those questions using the words he or she has chosen.  Or maybe I should say:  Find out everything you can about your new boss before briefing your first meeting.  Get their resume, talk to anyone who worked for them, if they have written articles get copies.  Don’t go in cold.
  • Graphics speak: Many people grasp information more quickly and retain it better when it is presented in graphic form rather than text. Make liberal use of relationship diagrams, tables with key concepts in the headers, charts, and pictures. Remember, pictures are worth a thousand words.
  • Make and distribute a hard or digital copy: If the boss is getting many project briefings as part of their orientation, it is likely that everything will run together in his or her mind after awhile. A copy of your briefing will serve as a reminder of your project.
  • Don’t try to do everything in one meeting: You are bound to have many more opportunities to present to your new boss. Think of this briefing as the beginning of a dialogue where you create a common vocabulary and understanding.  Make this meeting a positive one.


I want to thank Michael Watkins for his Blog on “How to succeed with your new boss” – it is a very good post on what to do with a new boss.


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