Tech & Work

What to do when the project sponsor leaves

While it's not the worst problem that a consultant can encounter, when the project sponsor leaves the project, changes and challenges are sure to follow. Here are some factors you should consider so you can decide how best to proceed.

Each week, project management veteran Tom Mochal provides valuable advice about how to plan and manage projects. Tom first describes a common problem scenario, based on a real-life situation. He then offers a solution, using practical project management practices and techniques.

The dilemma
As best I could tell, Bill’s program to install manufacturing software at our new plant was going well. A number of individual projects were already completed, and a couple of more were in progress. But when I received a phone call from him, he was worried. The manufacturing division had just announced that the project sponsor was being transferred to our European division. I asked Bill how this announcement affected his project.

“I was hoping to get some advice from you on just this subject,” Bill said. “My understanding was that his replacement would be named when he left, but now it appears that the position may be vacant for a while. Some of the client managers are starting to question whether we should continue to go forward now.”

I was surprised. “Really? Isn’t there anyone that would be an obvious replacement sponsor?”

“Actually, there is,” Bill noted with a little contempt in his voice. “Unfortunately, that person has never been a project advocate. In fact, the last company that he worked for used a different manufacturing package at their plants. I think he would rather use that one here as well.”

“What is the current status of the program?” I asked.

“We completed our initial analysis and overall design,” Bill said. “We already set up the supporting infrastructure and were in the process of initial installation and testing. We have 12 people involved, as well as the vendor, and we are spending money like crazy. Do you think we should put the project on hold?”

I pondered his question for a minute. “Given different circumstances, that might be the right course. But it’s probably not the thing to do right now.”

Mentor advice
In Bill’s case, my advice is to continue with the project as planned in the short term. Bill should also be seeking advice from his manager and other senior members of the manufacturing team on what short-term course of action to take.

When the new sponsor is announced, Bill should be flexible so he can deal with any changes in direction. But until then, the team needs to focus on the commitments that are already on the table.

You must have clear and ongoing business sponsorship for a project to be successful. But, like everything in business, change is inevitable.

For whatever reasons, you may find your sponsorship no longer in place. When that happens, the project manager needs to recognize the leadership void and revalidate business sponsorship. If the project has organizational commitment, a new sponsor should be easy to find.

Sometimes, however, a project relies on more personal sponsorship and vision. In these cases, the project may or may not survive the sponsor's exit.

Bill’s problem has a somewhat different twist. As long as the manufacturing plant is built, they will need software to run it, so there is little chance that his project will be cancelled. However, the person who may end up as the new sponsor may have different ideas on what that software should look like. Bill is understandably concerned, but considering these factors may help him solve the problem:
  • Where is the project on the timeline? If the project is in the planning stage, or if you are getting ready to make a big commitment, you should probably put the project on hold. Don’t stop the project but proceed slowly. On the other hand, if the project is running at full speed, you need to continue the project work until you have direction one way or another.
  • What are the consequences of continuing or holding the project? The consequences of either move partly depend again on what stage of the project you are in at the moment. If you are fully staffed and your direction is clear, it probably makes sense to continue work until you are told to do otherwise. The consequences of stopping may mean that you will lose resources you cannot get back.
  • Get your management involved. Without a sponsor in place, the project manager needs organizational cover. You need to seek advice from your functional manager, the business project manager, the steering committee, and others in authority. You may be able to gain a consensus on exactly what actions to take.

Project management veteran Tom Mochal is director of internal development at a software company in Atlanta. Most recently, he worked for the Coca-Cola Company, where he was responsible for deploying, training, and coaching the IS division on project-management and life-cycle skills. He's also worked for Eastman Kodak and Cap Gemini America and has developed a project-management methodology called TenStep.

Has this happened to you?
If you’ve been working on a project and a sponsor leaves the company or takes another assignment, how do you ensure that the project stays on task? Post your experiences and suggestions below.


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