Don't fall into the trap of assuming that the project sponsor can fill all roles.

Don’t fall into the trap of assuming that the project sponsor can fill all roles.

Project sponsors play a critical role in all projects. Sponsor’s  typically are senior leaders in an organization with operational roles that make playing multiple roles on a project difficult at best.  Project sponsors have the bandwidth to take on the project sponsor role, their day job and no other project role, therefore project sponsors are not project managers, Scrum masters or product owners.

Project managers develop plans, report and track progress, assign work and manage resources. Sponsors, on the other hand, provide direction and access to resources. Sponsors are informed by the project manager. On large or medium sized projects, the project manager role is generally a full-time position while the sponsor (generally a member of senior management) spends the majority of his or her time managing a portion of the business rather than a specific project.

In Agile projects the roles of the project sponsor and Scrum master are sometimes confused. A Scrum master facilitates the team. The Scrum master continuously interacts with the team ironing out the interpersonal conflicts, focusing the team on the flow of work and ensuring that nothing blocks the team from achieving their sprint goals. The sponsor provides motivation and exposure for the team at a higher level. A sponsor has issues and blockages escalated to them when they are outside of the team’s span of control. As with the project manager role, the Scrum master’s role provides intimate day-to-day, hour-to-hour support for the team while the sponsor is involved when needed or called upon.

Rarely is the sponsor the product owner. The only time I have seen the two roles combined is in very small organizations or in very small projects (and it wasn’t a great idea in either case). While both roles represent the voice of the business and the organization, a sponsor typically brings significantly more hierarchical power to the table. This positional power tends to dampen important Agile behaviors such as collaboration and self-organization. The product owner role will draw significantly on the time and focus of the project sponsor, which can cause them to take their eye off the direction of the business having negative ramifications.

As noted in The Role of The Project Sponsor, sponsors provide teams with a goal or vision, with access to resources and the political support needed to stay focused. The role can’t be played well by those in the organization without the needed sources of power, interest and resources needed to empower the project. Nor can someone play the role without the time needed to invest in the role. Project sponsors are typically senior leaders within an organization that are tied closely to the day-to-day operations of the organization, which makes it difficult if not impossible for them to play the role of project manager, Scrum master or product owner.

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