Project Practitioners > Taking Stakeholder Management Up a Notch

Taking Stakeholder Management Up a Notch

By Randy Englund

Ask, are you getting the support you need on your projects?  The answer most likely is, probably NOT!

Projects need upper manager/sponsor support to be successful.  This point seems to surface everywhere we turn—project manager testimonials, Pulse of the Profession reports, Chaos reports, personal experiences, etc.  Is it true, or is it anecdotal?

Colleague Alfonso Bucero and I decided to conduct experiments to prove or disprove the research hypothesis that upper management support is crucial to project success.  He had already accumulated much data from literature searches in his PhD studies.  All seemed to support that correlation exists between upper management support and project success.

Our experiments were conducted in multiple seminars during Project Management Institute SeminarsWorld.  We asked participants, coming from multiple industries and geographies, to pick a topic of concern to them, a current state that could be subjected to force field analysis.  Each table was free to select their own topic.  Craft a description of a current state.  Then identify forces that drove movement towards a better state or restrained that movement.  Likewise, identify forces that would make for, or prevent moving towards, a worse state.

Force field gbu
Vectors from Status Quo to better or worse states

The concept being employed is that a steady state equilibrium exists—forces in positive or negative directions balance each other.  A next step in developing action plans is to increase positive and decrease negative forces, thereby improving the situation.  Even small changes make a difference.  Multiple small changes in force vectors, combined with a few large changes, become the basis for a solid change management plan.


Repeatedly, almost every group picked a deficiency relating to upper management support!  The graphic shows a sample of flip chart results. This pattern repeats itself world-wide during these exercises.  Upper managers do not recognize, understand, appreciate, and/or support the project management process.


Frustration is rampant among project managers trying to execute projects where management support is non-existent or less than desired.  Suitable resources are not allocated in a timely manner, people are pulled off projects for other work, changes to requirements appear randomly, decisions and conflicts take forever to get resolved, project prioritization and selection are mysterious processes, with minimal linkage to any strategy, whether that strategy is directed or evolves.  Negative politics prevail.  These are just a few areas plaguing project, program, and portfolio management professionals trying to do their best work.

Research Findings

Project success or failure often depends on how well the project sponsor communicates and establishes a relationship with the project manager, the customer, and other project stakeholders during project life cycles. Project sponsors often do not understand their roles and responsibilities for the project.  In some situations, this occurs because nobody explains their responsibilities to them. Those circumstances generate many communication and execution problems.

Most organizations try to improve project success rates through developing project practitioner’s skills, project methodologies, project procedures, thus transforming organizations to project based organizations. Since project success or failure is not entirely within the control of the project manager or the project team, executives need to be involved, too.

Organizations have environmental issues, such as organizational changes, resource constraints, strategic changes or regulations, and they may influence the progress and outcomes of projects.  Dealing with these issues is why executive support needs to be included in any quest to improve project success rates.

Empirical evidence shows that there is a relationship between how well the sponsor supports project management in an organization and project success. This research identifies that the variables Commitment, Believes, and Rewards are the most significant variables which affect project success. These results provide insights for senior managers regarding the sponsor role in organizations to contribute to project success. Project sponsors should especially focus on commitment, belief and rewards. Even when several project sponsor role definitions exist, the research demonstrates that commitment, believe in, and being rewarded are three key factors that contribute to project success. This outcome adds to knowledge about desired behaviors from sponsors in organizations.

Theoretically, the findings contribute to the growing body of executive sponsorship and organizational project management literature. In the field of strategic management, the findings provide material to stimulate discussion on the advantages of executive project sponsorship oversight for strategic initiatives and the investment in project management in terms of long range organizational strategy. The findings also open the door to explore the question as to whether or not project sponsor role is a strategic competency that deserves continued investment.  The findings need to be translated into reality.

An implication for executives is to explore the role of excellence in project sponsorship, moving from poor sponsor performance to higher levels of maturity. Where project managers contribute to better performance on project based work, achieving additional higher levels of support from sponsors for project, program, and project teams can vastly improve project success rates.

Given the generally poor results from many projects currently, significant improvement may occur when sponsors up their involvement. This can happen by demonstrating increased commitment to each project selected via a project portfolio management process, participating in project start-up events, empowered and quick decision-making, and active sustained involvement throughout project life cycles. More verbal gestures sharing their beliefs about why projects are important and how they contribute to strategic goals would help. Setting up rewards and recognition for work accomplished may range from simple thank-yous to more elaborate bonuses. Large scale initiatives are not required to apply these insights. Many of these changes may occur by modification of behaviors, driven by increased awareness about how they impact project success.

References that Help

View a video that asks “Are your project tittering on thin edges, ready to collapse?  You are not alone.  Many projects fail to deliver desired out or do not complete at all.  Perhaps management commitment—or lack thereof—is a cause…?”

Both project practitioners and sponsors complete a quick assessment using a Sponsor Evaluation Survey.  A database of cumulative averages is available to compare personal results with people in other organizations.  For areas where you score high, what action steps can you do to reinforce, leverage, educate, coach, and expand the practices that led to that high score?  Look for opportunities to share these best practices with others.

For areas where you score low, what action steps can you propose to do differently or discover practices that will improve your score?  Seek inputs from others who scored higher in these areas.

The benchmark scores help determine where you are compared to others.  Use the data and action plans to communicate with others about the need and means to build upon strengths and improve sponsorship in your organization.  Data is especially meaningful to capture attention from stakeholders in data-driven environments.  Discuss simple (or complex) changes that can make a difference within your organization.

Convene a book study group using Project Sponsorship: A Manager’s Guide to Achieving Management Commitment, 2nd Ed.  Engage in dialogue to help select, train, and develop project sponsors.

Randall L. Englund and Alfonso Bucero share these toolsets and many more in seminars on “Integrating People, Organizational, and Technical Skills: The Complete Project Manager.”  Next PMI SeminarsWorld sessions occur in Chicago prior to the Global Congress and during December in Miami.

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