Do you have a project sponsor named, but lack the true sponsorship you need to succeed?

When project leaders and change managers are asked to name the number-one success factor for project success, they respond with a resounding: active and visible sponsorship. In all Prosci's Best Practices in Change Management research reports, active and visible sponsorship was cited as the number-one contributor to the success of a project. Since 2008, sponsorship has been cited four times more often than any other factor. 

Despite a large percentage of projects having a senior leader named as the project sponsor, they lack the true sponsorship required for success. To see if this is valid for your project, first consider why sponsorship is important and what "sponsorship" means.

Project leaders are looking for executive sponsorship to ensure that:

  • Sufficient resources and funding are available for the project
  • Priorities are established between competing initiatives
  • Other senior leaders are sponsoring the change in their area
  • Employees understand why the change is being made and how the change aligns with the vision for the organization
  • Managers who resist the change have a productive channel to resolve their objections

When project leaders lack executive sponsorship, they often experience:

  • Increased resistance from employees, including key managers in the organization
  • Unavailability of resources to support the project
  • Slow adoption of the change or complete rejection of the change by some parts of the organization

Sponsor In name vs. In practice

Consider a project that you are supporting today. If you concur with the statements above, and if you have a senior leader sponsoring your change, you might assume that you are good to go. Unfortunately, the research data does not support that assumption. Prosci research participants have cited ineffective change sponsorship as the number-one obstacle to change. When asked why, the project leaders and change managers did not say that they lacked a sponsor in name. Instead, they said:

  • Our sponsor was at the wrong level or in the wrong part of the organization to support this change (they did not have control over the people and systems impacted by the change)
  • Our sponsor was invisible (they were not involved with the project team nor did they communicate to employees)
  • Our sponsor did not build a coalition of sponsorship with other business leaders (we encountered resistance from managers throughout the organization)
  • Our sponsor wavered in their support mid-way through the project (they found a different project that took priority)
  • Our sponsor did not manage resistance that surfaced during the change

So when we conclude that sponsorship is the number-one success factor for change, the mere assignment of a senior leader as a sponsor does not constitute effective sponsorship.

A simple sponsorship checklist

Below is a checklist that you can complete to determine of you are well-positioned to have the required authority for change for your project. Score each question on a scale of one to five, where one represents "no" or complete disagreement with the statement, and five represents "yes" or complete agreement with the statement.

If you score between 40 and 50, and you scored the first three questions a 4 or 5, then your project has the ingredients for effective sponsorship. If you scored below 30, your project lacks the required executive sponsorship for success.

Statement Score
My sponsor has the ability to provide the needed resources and funding for the project. 1 - 5
My sponsor has direct control over the people and processes being impacted by this change. 1 - 5
My sponsor has direct control over the systems and tools being impacted by this change. 1 - 5
My sponsor is willing and able to be active and visible throughout the entire project. 1 - 5
My sponsor will build a coalition of sponsorship with key leaders and stakeholders in the organization. 1 - 5
My sponsor will manage resistance from other managers and remove barriers to the success of the project. 1 - 5
My sponsor will communicate directly to employees about why this change is being made and the risk of not changing. 1 - 5
My sponsor will implement the necessary reinforcements to sustain the change, including modifications to performance objectives and performance evaluations, and rewards and recognition for employees that adopt the change. 1 - 5
My sponsor is credible and respected by employees and managers within the organization (employees embrace the leadership of this individual). 1 - 5
My sponsor will remain in the organization throughout the implementation of this change. 1 - 5
Total score:  

 *Checklist is a product of Prosci's Sponsor Competency Assessment

How to REmedy Ineffective Sponsorship

If you scored low on the sponsorship checklist, several steps need to be taken to address the root cause.

If you scored low on any of the first three questions, then your sponsor is likely not at the right level given the scope of your project. If this is the case, a careful assessment of the sponsorship coalition would be necessary to determine if this project is in jeopardy. If it turns out that your sponsorship coalition is also weak, then you have two options:

  1. Identify the right person to sponsor this initiative and begin to build the necessary sponsor coalition
  2. Redefine the scope of your project to fit or align with the sponsorship you do have

Simply continuing with the project is typically not a viable option as the consequences overall will be negative to the organization and to employees, and the probability of project failure is high.

If you score low on questions 4 - 8, then your sponsor will need coaching on the role of sponsorship during change. You could either have a sponsor that is willing but does not know what effective sponsorship means, or you could have a sponsor who would prefer not to be directly involved. This latter issue will be harder to overcome, but with the right information and approach, most sponsors quickly see the importance of their role and are willing to get on board. If, on the other hand, your sponsor is willing but uneducated as to the role of effective sponsorship, the project leader or change manager can directly coach and assist the sponsor in carrying out this role.

If you scored low on questions 9 or 10, these situations often require special tactics for approaching the project, including careful use of a strong sponsor coalition who can carry a strong message to employees and who will be there throughout the entire project. If your sponsor is on a fixed term, such as with military organizations or government agencies, you may want to consider breaking the project into phases and focus on the phase that falls within the term limit of that sponsor.

What This Means for You

Having a project sponsor named for your change and having the required "sponsorship" for a successful change are not the same thing. A majority of executive and senior leaders lack the understanding and knowledge around the roles of effective sponsorship to provide the actions required for successful change - that's where you, the change manager, come in. Learn more about why a sponsor is important and what good sponsorship looks like with this article.

Executive Sponsr and Role download article

Written by
Tim Creasey
Tim Creasey

Tim Creasey is Prosci’s Chief Innovation Officer and a globally recognized leader in change management. His work forms the foundation of the largest body of knowledge in the world on managing the people side of change to deliver organizational results.