Some Anti-Patterns Should Be Avoided

Some Anti-Patterns Should Be Avoided

Wikipedia describes an anti-pattern as a response to a typical problem that is ineffective or potentially counterproductive. There are numerous ways to implement project sponsorship that work (patterns) and just as many that don’t work (anti-patterns). Reviewing the four of the most typical anti-patterns and some ideas on how to mitigate the negative impact is illustrative of the problems teams and organizations face.

  1. Absentee Sponsor: If you have not seen or talked to your sponsor in recent memory you are dealing with the problem of an absentee sponsor. Absentee sponsors can occur for a number of reasons including a project without an identified sponsor, a sponsor that is overburdened or an uninterested sponsor. Each specific cause requires a slightly different course of action; however the underlying cause generally is a problem of portfolio management. In many cases these problems are a reflection of starting more projects than the organization can work on effectively at one time. By starting too many projects the organization will struggle to either find sponsors that are directly interested in the project or can spend the time needed. One organization I worked with required a commitment to engage by a business sponsor before they would consider a project. Sponsors provide influence and resources needed by a project to be effective. Projects that fail this basic hurdle should be postponed. If an active project is suffering from an absentee sponsor, the project lead should, at the very least, escalate the issue as a critical risk as high up in organizational hierarchy as possible.
  2. Underpowered Sponsor: Underpowered sponsors can’t provide enough support, influence or resources for the project to effectively and efficiently deliver value. Underpowered sponsors usually are caused by two situations: The first, like absentee sponsors, is a reflection of a portfolio issue. The second issue is often a reflection of someone new to the ranks of senior management or the ranks of being a sponsor. The simplest solution to the second issue is for the “underpowered sponsor” to find an organizational ally (or allies) to augment their organizational power. A more radical solution would be to replace the underpowered sponsor; however, this should be a last resort solution and only used for critical projects.
  3. Proxy Sponsor: A proxy sponsor is a stand-in for the person that should be the sponsor. Proxy sponsors occur for many of the same reasons as absentee or underpowered sponsors; however, in this case someone has recognized the problem and tried to patch the problem. In many cases the “real” sponsor has delegated the responsibility for sponsorship either to IT or to his/her direct report. Decision-making in projects with proxy sponsors will take longer and will typically suffer from more interruptions from higher priority activities. Projects in this scenario should seek to identify decisions and support needs that are outside of the team’s span of control as early possible and avoid waiting for the escalation and validation process to catch up. One solution I suggest is that the proxy schedule periodic meetings which a more senior sponsor (a decision-maker) to ensure the wait time for decisions to be made is minimized.
  4. Role Conflict: Sponsors should not be project managers, Scrum masters or product owners. Occasionally, sponsors are seduced to the dark side and attempt to play one or more of these roles. Usually when a sponsor tries to play any of these roles on top of being the project sponsor (and in addition to their day job) they will be overwhelmed. In most cases the project leader should discuss the problem with the sponsor and ensure they have the proper training need to effectively act as a sponsor.

Effective project sponsorship is critical for any project to deliver the value described in project’s business case. The anti-patterns are most often a reflection of the poor portfolio management. Starting too many projects at once slows all projects down and typically means less gets done than if a more measured approach were taken. A project should not be started unless the right sponsor (which includes making sure they are trained to be a sponsor) is identified and they agree to take on the role. The right sponsor will be able to provide the right level of interest, influence and resources. Any other solution might help but will not solve the problem in the long run!

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