So picture this:
A project is well underway when a critical, show-stopping issue crops up. The news isn't good, but it's also not life or death, and the Project Manager (PM) needs to have a conversation with the Sponsor about next steps.
Now, if the PM and Sponsor have a solid working relationship - if they know each other's styles and preferences, what causes tension or stress, and how best to have difficult conversations, and if they're in absolute lock-step about the project goals and priorities, then they simply play out the roles they're used to playing: they make it through the tough moment, make good decisions for the project and the organization, and move forward. Easy, right?
But what if, as so often happens, the PM and Sponsor are working together for the first time? What if they don't know each other well enough to navigate through this sort of tough conversation smoothly. What if neither knows the other's "tells" under stress? What if they don't have the ground to stand on in order to have a productive, healthy interaction? What if neither knows what to say?
Communication continues to be the greatest source of pain in projects: when we don't communicate effectively, our projects and our businesses suffer. It's not just what we say, and when we say it, but also, and perhaps more importantly, how our message is received and perceived. Effective communication requires a foundation of a healthy working relationship, and no single communication relationship in a project is more critical than that between the PM and the Sponsor.
Very often, however, PMs and Sponsors work and operate in different circles of the organization, with different priorities, different areas of focus, and even different ways of communicating. It's hard to build a relationship with someone, or to have effective and healthy exchanges of perspectives, ideas, and insights if you don't know what to say, or where to even start.
Every project is, by very definition, unique. But there are predictable moments, and critical conversations that need to take place throughout the project. Assembled below are some conversation starters - prompts, if you will - to help PMs and Sponsors have more effective exchanges at core moments in the project.
Read them, make them your own.
- If you are a PM - use them to engage your Sponsor.
- If you are a Sponsor - use them to engage with your PM.
Initiation (The perfect time to get things started off on the right foot)
CONVERSATION STARTER 1 – Let’s get to know each other...
Thanks so much for inviting me to help you drive this project home! I’m so glad you entrusted this project to my care.I’m looking forward to working with you!
Let me introduce myself: I like to think of myself as a driver. As Sponsor, you’re accountable for the end destination – where we’re going. As Project Manager, I’m accountable for getting us there safely. I’m a good driver – I know the rules of the road, I’m comfortable with the operator’s manual, and I’ve driven vehicles like this before.
But enough about me - tell me a little about yourself and your role in this organization. Have you sponsored projects before?
CONVERSATION STARTER 2 - What, really, are we doing here?
It’s so important for us to be absolutely in synch about what we’re doing, and why! The project team will count on us for that. With that in mind, I have a couple of questions for you.
First, and foremost: What is it you want us to do?
I really want to see the project the way you see it. Can you paint the picture for me of the end state? What is your vision? What does success look like, and how will we know? Where are we headed, Sponsor? Our end goal, our end stop, must be as clear to me as it is to you, so I can help us navigate there.
Perhaps even more importantly: Why are we doing this, Sponsor?
When all is said and done, when the product is on the shelf, or fully delivered, or fully functional and operating, what did we gain? In what ways are we better off? Help me understand that, Sponsor, and I as PM will protect those benefits on the journey.
CONVERSATION STARTER 3 – Let’s be real…
You probably know that as Sponsor, you’re my primary stakeholder. You have the greatest influence over the project, and this project has a meaningful and direct impact on you.
Help me understand how you feel about this project.
My guess is that like most Sponsors, you’re coming from one of two places…
Either, this has been your idea from the start, and you love this more than any other person on the planet – or, it’s someone else’s idea, but you’ve been assigned, instructed, or “voluntold” to do it.
So, let’s be real. How much do you love this?
Because, if you love it, then I as PM will learn to love it as much as you do, so you can have complete faith that I'll help us deliver.
And if you don’t love it, then don’t worry, because I as PM will help you stay engaged, even if it's not your favorite topic.
CONVERSATION STARTER 4 – Let’s see...
At this point in the game, Sponsor, The words I need to hear most from you are “let’s see.” The idea of initiation is simply this: “Let's spend a little time and a little money to build out a business case for this idea, so we can determine if it's really the best use of our organization's time and money."
Here are my favorite words in that message, Sponsor, that when I hear them from you, they mean so much.:
"Let's" - you know, “let us,” meaning "we're in this together." When I hear you say that, I know you mean that you’re right by my side as we figure this out.
"Spend" – yeah, I know no one loves that word, but when you say it, Sponsor, I know you realize this isn’t just “giving up” or “shelling out” time or money, but that you’re investing in the project, and that you know it’s neither free nor instant.
"If" – when I hear you say “if”, Sponsor, I know it means that you’re open to the truth – that you don’t know yet whether or not we’ll go forward. That you agree that it’s not all clear yet, and that you’re committed to figuring out if this idea is really in our collective best interest.
CONVERSATION STARTER 5 – What do you like?
We’re going to be working together for some time, Sponsor, and I want to give you the gift of communication. I want to adapt my style and my approach to best meet your needs, so I need to know your preferences.
How do you like to be part of communications? Do you prefer email, phone calls, face to face meetings? Do you like bullet points or narratives? Do you prefer a written summary or a visual? Do you prefer mornings or afternoons? Are there times of day or days of week that are best for us to connect?
CONVERSATION STARTER 6 – How can I help you most?
I’m here to help. My goal is to navigate us through to your chosen destination in the way that is most effective. What would make my driving easiest on you?
Are you painfully busy, Sponsor? Then I as PM will meet you where you are and make it simple and painless for you to be informed about the project.
Are you under a great deal of pressure from above, Sponsor? Then I as PM will help take the pressure off of this project, and we'll anticipate the challenges and prepare for them.
Are you not a big fan of the "process" or "methodology" of project management, Sponsor? then I as PM will bring us through the path, without making you dwell on the mechanics or forms of it.
Are you new to project management, Sponsor? Then I as PM will show you how much I love it, and help you help us through.
CONVERSATION STARTER 7 – May I let you in on a secret?
Sponsor, you may already know this, but studies continue to show that a huge percentage of projects fail – it’s scary, but the truth is a majority of projects deliver late, over budget, or something less than what was desired. So the deck is statistically not stacked in our favor.
But I believe that we can be successful, and I’m committed to getting us there safely. The truth is, we’ll have bumps and detours, and probably some closed roads and washed out bridges along the way.
But if you and I stay in sync, if we keep the lines of communication open, and if we are honest with each other, and if we each do the job we’ve been hired to do, then we’ll get through this, and this project will be one of the successful ones!
Are you ready?
In the next installment of this series, our PM and Sponsor will move into Planning, and have a whole new set of scripts. Stay tuned for the next step.
Readers: Do you have other ideas for kickstarting those critical PM/Sponsor conversations during Initiation? Chime in the conversation and add your comments below.