Standish Group: the role of the executive sponsor in IT projects

By David Bicknell

The US-based Standish Group has published a series of excellent pieces on its blog over the last few days over the role of the executive sponsor in IT projects.

The blog features an interview with Eugene Bounds, senior vice-president at Booz Allen Hamilton.

Bounds says, “I was first reached by the then current executive sponsor of a project called “RightIT.”  RightIT helps organisations optimise their IT investments.  The project combined the capabilities of IT, PM and cost.  He had the expertise in IT and he wanted my expertise in programme management and finance.  I eventually became the executive sponsor for the RightITTM project. 

“The first thing I did was to establish frequent and standard meetings; so, every Friday we had a team meeting.  My commitment is to be available for guidance and status reviews.”

Bounds adds, “As executive sponsor of the RightIT project, I thought it was critical to understand who on the leadership team would be affected or could gain benefit from the RightIT project.  I then reached out to these colleagues to establish an advisory group. 

“As part of the advisory group, I established monthly meetings.  This gave me an opportunity to get direct stakeholder feedback and support.  If we were producing an artifact, I wanted their thoughts on it to make it better.  I wanted to make it packaged and ready to go.  Of all the things I did as an executive sponsor, this was the most important.”

“The problem is that project managers have their own view and language.  The project manager looks at the project tactically.  He or she looks more in the weeds of the project or the details to try to get it done.  The executive sponsor tends to look at it as a strategic event.  He or she will look at the project on how it aligns with the goals of the organisation. 

“In the project management profession we have our own language and plenty of acronyms.  So there is a gap and it really is up to the project manager to fill the gap.  We cannot expect the executive sponsor to understand the PMBOK (project management body of knowledge) and all of its artifacts and processes.  It is up to the project manager to make that translation.  Executive sponsors on the other hand have the responsibility to ensure that the project manager makes that translation.”

The Standish Group points out that the executive sponsor is “the owner of the project. As the owner of the project, the full weight and responsibilities of the success or failure of the project falls squarely on his or her shoulders. The executive sponsor, for better or worse, owns the outcome. The executive sponsor has no right to abdicate his or her executive responsibility. He or she cannot blame the project manager, the IT executives, users, stakeholders, reluctant peers, vendors, or software developers.

“The sole responsibility for a successful outcome rests on the shoulders of the executive sponsor.  The sponsor may not be an executive of the organisation, but he or she is the chief executive of the project. The word ‘executive’ symbolises a higher level of responsibility. It is more powerful than just ‘sponsor.'”

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