Super Sponsor

Super Sponsor

The product owner is the voice of the customer and performs a significant of a number of activities, including acting as a conduit/facilitator for communication between the team and the outside world.  Other activities include: defining and elaborating stories, prioritizing the backlog and accepting work when the team completes a story.  The product owner’s role is related or influenced by the sponsor’s roles (sometimes known as executive or project sponsor).  The sponsor is the person that has overall responsibility and accountability for a piece of work.  The sponsor champions the project based on whether the work fits the business’s needs and overall strategy, finds and secures the budget and has the overall responsibility for the work to deliver the promised value. This is true even though he or she will probably never write a line of code or test.  Sponsors empower the product owner to act for them on a more tactical basis.  A comparison of how the sponsor’s typical roles translate to the product owner is shown below: (more…)

Sponsors ultimately say start or stop!

Sponsors ultimately say start or stop!

We defined the role of a project sponsor (or sponsors) as delivering resources, vision and political influence. This definition is in-line with my practical experience and for the most part within industry theory. I recently asked several colleagues, clients and friends their opinion of the role of the sponsor. While not a cross section of the IT environment, the sample included several published authors, developers, project managers, Scrum masters and even a few sponsors.

The results of this informal survey of the role of the sponsor was that sponsors:

  1. Deliver resources,
  2. Provide influence,
  3. Share vision,
  4. Are accountable for results and have the responsibility of delivering benefits back to the business, and
  5. Make the ultimate release decision.

The survey identified two concepts in addition to providing resources — influence and vision:

The first of the new concepts, accountability for results, reflects the idea that someone needs to make sure that the project delivers the promised benefits. Meetu Gururaj, Wipro, said it eloquently, “The sponsor has the responsibility of delivering benefits back to the business.” All significant projects are approved based on some sort of business case. The business case is used to allocate scarce resources (we can all agree that there is always more project work to do than budget available), knowledge and talent within the organization. If the results in the  business case becomes a mere formality used for project approval and then never referred to again, how is an organization to know whether they have made the right investment decision?

The second concept that the respondents added to the list of sponsor responsibilities was making the ultimate release decision. Evan Leybourn included in his ultimate role of the sponsor “is to say start and stop”. The sponsor supplies the budget/resources, the influence and support and is accountable for the results dovetailing nicely with making the ultimate go/no-go decision.

Sponsorship is more than writing a check and saying a few words of wisdom. The feedback from the sample of authors, developers, project managers, Scrum masters and sponsors was a reminder that the responsibilities of being a sponsor is balanced by accountability.

Not everyone has what it takes to be a sponsor.

Not everyone has what it takes to be a sponsor.

Not everyone can or should be a sponsor. Good sponsorship requires resources, influence and interest in varying degrees.


Influence is the ability to make something happen or in some cases to make “things” not happen. Sponsors apply influence in a variety of ways including helping teams acquire resources or to remove barriers. Early in my career I had to ask a sponsor to make a call to get a schedule change so that my team did not have to move offices the week before a major production implementation. Influence can be used to remove barriers that are outside of the team’s control.

Resources, in their simplest form, begin with the check (budget) that the sponsor writes for the project. Managers transform the budget into a team, buy software, and secure team workspace or other project needs. Without resources, the duration of any project will be very short.

Interest is the feeling of wanting to learn more about the project which translates into attention, concern, or curiosity. The higher the level of interest in a project the more energy the sponsor will expend to pay attention to what is happening as the project progresses.

Project criticality, defined as the quality, state or degree of being of the highest importance, will impact the type of sponsor required. How does project criticality affect the need for specific levels of resources, influence and interest equation?


Resources (at least over short to medium term) are closer to constant than a variable, either the project has the resources required or they do not. While there are theoretical discussions on the impact of somewhat constraining a project by providing them slightly less than what is requested, if a project does not have enough money they fail sooner or later. The higher the level of criticality more important the sponsor’s access to resources will be to ensure the project is not negatively constrained.

Criticality and the need for a sponsor to provide influence are positively correlated. The more critical a project, the more influence a sponsor may need to bring to bear to ensure focus and fend off distractions. Consider the impact to a project to a project if a team needs to be diverted to deal with urgent, but not important, interruptions. Interruptions rarely positively impact a project, and the higher the criticality the higher the chance that an avoidable interruption will impact the team or the project’s value.

While sponsors should be interested in any project they sponsor; the more critical a project is the more interest they will need to exhibit. Critical projects generally need the attention and involvement high levels of interest generate.   A sponsor that pays attention to project will be better positioned to provide support, motivation, influence and extra resources if needed.

Sponsors that cannot deliver the proper level resources, influence or interest for their projects will be poor sponsors. Projects of all types need to understand that because sponsors are human there will be variability in the amount of resources, influence and interest that can be brought to bear and attributes like criticality will required different levels of support. Project leaders and teams approach potential gaps in sponsorship as a risk, and should be assessed and mitigated if needed.

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.

Sponsors champion a vision for the project!

Sponsors champion a vision for the project!


The role of a project sponsor (or sponsors) is discussed less often than project and program managers, Scrum masters, developers or even coaches. Even in its simplest form the role of a sponsor is not only important, but also critical. Good sponsors provide funding and resources, vision and political support.

A sponsor typically provides the funding for the project or program. He or she that owns the project checkbook will in the end own the decisions that affect the overall budget. The budget is then translated into the people, tools and software needed to deliver value to the business by the sponsor’s lieutenants. Lieutenants can include project and program managers, the product owner, Scrum masters or technical leads. Control of the budget is also an indication that the sponsor is ultimately responsible for delivering an amount of value to the overall business. They are often judged by whether the money spent on projects delivers a return on investment. Therefore sponsors will be interested in how their money is being spent.

If sponsors are responsible for both the funding for a project and then the value the project delivers, they must also be the champions of the project’s vision. The vision represents the purpose or motivation for the project. Until delivered, a vision is the picture that anyone involved with the project should be able to describe. I often liken the project vision as the flag on top of the mountain that acts as a rallying point. While a sponsor does not have to conceive of every project vision, they must act as a cheerleader motivating the organization to support the team or teams.

I can’t conceive of an organizational environment outside of a single proprietorship in which the day-to-day pressures of delivery put pressure on project personnel and resources to focus their time more urgent tasks (urgent and important are not the same thing).  The general level of noise and jockeying for people and resources can lead to a loss of focus or worse yet a premature change in direction. One of the most fundamental roles that a project sponsor has is to act as bulwark to shield the project from pressures that could delay or pull the project apart. Standing up against the pressure that even mundane day-to-day operations can create requires the use of the sponsor’s political capital within the organization. Political capital is generated from where the sponsor is in the organization hierarchy, how critical the project is to the organizations mission, the perceived ROI of the project and the sponsor’s ability to deliver winners. 

Project sponsors are generally senior figures in most companies. Sponsors are called on to champion the projects vision and then to back words with funding and political capital. All of the assets a sponsor brings to the table are perishable therefore sponsors will always be every interested in the work being done in their name.


In an Agile project, are product owners leaders or drill sergeants?  The role of product owners evolved out of the roles of project manager, business subject matter expert (SME) and project sponsor from the waterfall environment. In the waterfall model of projects, each of these roles provided different levels of direction, management and leadership. The project manager is the administrator. The SME provides information on what is done today and what they will need in the future. The sponsor’s role included providing resources, framing the scope of the project, providing direction as the project moves forward and to demand that the project delivers. The sponsor and the project manager are generally the outsiders that exhort the team into action . . . they act as drill sergeants. The Agile principle that states that “the business and developers must work together daily” suggests shedding the approach of an outsider exhorting the team and implementing the concept of the product owner as part of the team.

In an Agile project the product owner’s roles include:

  • Owning and prioritizing the product backlog,
  • Providing product vision,
  • Involving customers, users, and other stakeholders, and
  • Collaborating with others on the team.

In my opinion the critical behavior is that of collaboration: the act of working together to produce or create an outcome. The behavior of collaboration requires the product owner to abandon the role drill sergeant and focus on being a leader.

The product owner leads by shaping the backlog and collaborating with their fellow team members. The qualities discussed in the Forbes article are very different from the attributes attributed to the screaming stereotypical drill sergeant.  The product owner will be more successful if they embrace the principle of the business and developers working together in collaboration, making them more of a leader than a drill sergeant.