Ali Girard

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Change Management through the Eyes of a Project Sponsor

Last week I attended a local chapter ACMP meeting that included a fascinating guest speaker: a project sponsor from a different area of my large educational organization. It was easily one of the most valuable presentations I’ve attended in my career thus far. Having the curtain drawn back on the world of a sponsor (especially a sponsor in education) helped solidify some components of change management theory I previously understood at a purely intellectual level, and led to a couple of moments where the reasons behind previous sponsorship challenges clicked into place.

Here are the main thoughts that have stuck with me as I digested the presentation over the past week:

“What I Thought I Knew”

Part of the reason the session was so valuable was that our guest speaker allowed herself to be vulnerable. She confessed that as a leader, she thought she knew how to manage projects and change – wasn’t that what she had been doing for her entire career? Yet, when she jumped into this technology change that reached nearly every corner of her unit (80 departments), she realized that she was in over her head.

She needed to put her ego aside and acknowledge that switching from operational leadership to change leadership was like “switching from soccer to hockey.” You may be an excellent athlete with the same general goal (get it in the net) but the rules and refined skills are different. For this sponsor, it was important to have her experience and organizational knowledge respected, while also having a solid team that she could trust to guide her into this new territory of large-scale system and process change.

Demonstrating Respect and Building Trust

Our guest speaker came out of the project with a great amount of respect for change management and the role of the change manager. This respect, she said, germinated from observing the high degree of respect the project manager exhibited toward the change manager. The project manager expressed opinions and modeled behaviours that she as the sponsor could emulate: ensuring change management was represented at the project leadership table; asking the change manager for their input on project direction; and deferring to the change manager’s expertise when appropriate.

That respect that was built within their project leadership team allowed this sponsor to trust the change manager when they had to navigate tricky territory: a 12 month project delay. Based on their previous work on developing honest communication channels, she trusted that the best way to keep people on board was to be transparent about the reasons for the delay. Her knee-jerk reaction was that laying out the system problems would result in shaken faith in the new system, but in the end in worked in their favour: their stakeholders understood that they were taking the time to get the system right and were actually happy about the delay.

The Emotional Reality of Being a Sponsor

When reflecting on her role over the course of the project, our guest speaker laid out two major emotional tug-of-wars for a project sponsor:

  • Balancing the desire to pull through for your team (and look good!) vs. understanding the financial, technical and timeline constraints of a project.
  • Being caught as the point in the middle between a team of end-users you’re accountable to (who think you’re at the top) and an executive team you’re accountable to.

Basically, she was accountable to a variety of groups and wanted to be able to pull it off for everyone. Not uncommon for committed project sponsors. Yet, “pulling it off” looked different depending on where in the organization you sat, and therefore she had to negotiate and compromise (and even had to settle for slightly less than her original vision). Hearing her talk about all the directions she was pulled in helped me understand what an emotionally exhausting place the sponsor is in. The project team may also be in a bit of a balancing act, but a good sponsor can be kept up at night worrying about letting people down. Additionally, as the face of the project, they have the added pressure of how the project might impact their career reputation within the organization.

In the end, the session lead me think about project close-out activities. Our projects do not generally include the sponsor in lessons learned sessions, but now I think I’ll prompt the PM to extend an invitation. These self-reflection exercises are so valuable for understanding how sponsors and project teams can work together better and help develop change management advocates at leadership levels in an organization.

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