Project Practitioners > Negotiating with My Sponsor

Negotiating with My Sponsor

By Randy Englund

Upper management support is crucial for project success.  Their support in sponsoring projects, however, often falls short of what is necessary to ensure project success.  Why?  Is it ignorance, lack of knowledge about what's required, distaste for the role, too busy, unwilling...?  Well, maybe so, but a key ingredient is the ability of project managers to manage upwards and effectively negotiate with their sponsors. 


Pretend you are eavesdropping with a coach on a conversation between a sponsor and project manager.  Observe the good, the bad, and the ugly about what happens - or should happen - during negotiations. Appreciate how negotiating skills dramatically enhance the ability to obtain effective sponsorship and to sustain sponsorship support all the way through to project success.


Begin with a mindset that everything about a project is negotiable and that a project leader needs to be a skilled negotiator.  Define project success and establish desired outcomes. Review basic negotiation principles, including how to use the four basic forces in every negotiation:  power, information, timing, and approach.  Understand and use negotiating techniques as a means to move people from stalemate to solution.


Conversations between PMs and sponsors include scenarios that demonstrate:


· When to negotiate

· Necessary preparations

· Applying ten rules of negotiating

· Courage and fortitude to negotiate through difficult situations

· Creating effective alternatives for reaching successful agreements

· Moving people from ineffective positions to more cooperative and mutually beneficial approaches to issue resolution

· Dealing with project deadlines

· Developing acceptable concessions

· Skillfully using power, information, and timing in a negotiation

· Bringing a negotiation to a successful close


At the beginning of any endeavor is the ideal time to negotiate.  Before accepting a project assignment, ask many questions, such as:


·   Why are we doing this project?

·   What problem is this project solving?

·   How was this project selected—process, criteria?

·   What strategic goal does this project support?

·   Are we fully prepared to resource this project?

·   What constitutes project success?


When being asked to do the impossible, with no resources, and by tomorrow, the project is in trouble.  Most projects are not quite this bad…but come very close.  It is not acceptable to be set up for failure.  However, it may take a changed mindset—and courage—to engage in negotiations with upper management.  The beginning of a project is the time to negotiate all facets relating to that project.  Also make it clear that the intent is Creating an Environment for Successful Projects (Graham and Englund, 2004).


Negotiating is a fun and productive endeavor.  Closure occurs when a resolution of a problem is agreed upon, a new project with clear objectives and constraints is accepted by both sides, or commitments are achieved on courses of action. Creating the Project Office (Englund, Graham, and Dinsmore, 2003) is an example of a concerted effort to manage projects, programs, and portfolios across the organization.  This effort may be a massive change for the organization, required intense negotiations to adopt, adapt, and apply a change management process.


A Good Outcome


Let us observe a dialogue where the intent is to work through the emotions and pressures surrounding a proposed project and arrive at an agreement that is acceptable to all parties.  This culminates a concerted effort to ensure that discussions with a sponsor productively reach an agreement that both sides are pleased to accept and support willfully.  It is not required that the discussion be conflict free or even comfortable.  Skill and perseverance are necessary to surface feelings, assumptions, questions, and concerns that may initially be hidden or missing from a critical thought process.


What Saying

What Thinking


S: When can you get started?



PM:  I have a number of questions first.  Can we discuss it further?



S:  Well, I need you to get started right away.  We’re wasting time that we don’t have.  The trade show will happen whether we are ready or not!


PM:  I can’t do much if we don’t have a complete set of requirements and all the resources assigned to the project.


S:  We’ll make that happen.  Meanwhile I need your estimate of staff and time, right now.


PM: Anything I give you now is going to be wrong.


S:  But I have to get back to the executive committee with an answer.


PM: In that case, knowing that the deadline is fixed when the trade show starts, the only estimate I can provide right now is to deliver a minimally functional prototype with a full time dedicated that is in in place to start within two weeks.


S:  Okay, that’s a good start.



PM: I will get to work immediately on a project plan that describes what we need to do.  Can I get back to you next week for your approval on this plan?


S: Yes, I look forward to working with you on this project.



I need to be strong and emphasize how important this project is to me.


I’m worried about jumping in too soon so I need to get a few more issues settled before making any commitments.


This is frustrating.  I need to reemphasize how we have to get started now.




I’m feeling the pressure.  But I need to stand firm on following the PMBOK process steps.



Let me turn up the volume.



Now I’m feeling intimidated.  It’s time to take a firm stand.


I see there’s no budging.  Let me shift to providing more reasons for the urgency.


I need to provide some response.  A full featured project would be extremely risky in this timeframe, but we may be able to do a scaled down version.  Let me test if this approach is feasible.



This is not the answer I wanted, but it’s okay, possibly even better for all parties concerned.


I’m starting to get excited about this project.  I’m glad I stood firm on not overcommitting.




We’ve got a good working situation going on here.


Randy Englund, co-author Project Sponsorship: Achieving Management Commitment for Project Success, Englund Project Management Consultancy,

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