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 real-life situations. He then offers a solution, using practical project management practices and techniques.

The dilemma
Meg had gotten herself into some trouble and wanted to see me as soon as possible. Her project, to implement a construction cost-estimating package for the facilities department, was going over budget and past its estimated end date.

Meg’s sponsor just found out and was not happy.

“I thought I was managing the project well,” Meg began. “We developed a set of requirements for the installation of the estimating package. But as the project has progressed, the users had new requirements they forgot to include. Whenever this happened, I initiated standard scope-change management procedures.”

“Tell me what your scope-change procedures were,” I replied. “Perhaps they were missing some important piece.”

Meg described the process: “Whenever a scope-change request was made, we documented it and created a cost estimate. Then we took the change to the customer and validated whether the business benefit of the change was worth the cost and effort. If they said to go ahead, we proceeded. In fact, I have everything documented.”

“You’ll need to explain to me why your sponsor is unhappy,” I said. “If you invoked scope-change management, and the change was approved, the impact to the project should have been known.”

“The sponsor says that they didn’t approve the changes and they were not aware the project was going over budget,” Meg said. “I guess we didn’t do a good enough job of managing her expectations throughout the process.”

Now I was really confused: “I don’t understand. I thought you said that the sponsor approved all the scope changes.”

“No,” she said. “I said that the customer approved the change. When a user requested a change, we always went to their manager for approval. I thought that if a manager approved the work, we should go ahead.”

“Now I see,” I concluded. “You have made the common mistake of not understanding who your major customer is. There may be many people who are users and stakeholders, but the only person who can approve changes to budget and schedule is the sponsor.”

Mentor advice
Meg thought that she was doing the right thing by having a customer manager approve scope-change requests. That may have been okay when the project budget and deadline were not impacted.

However, these lower-level managers cannot make decisions that require budget and deadline changes. They do not have authority to add to the project budget.

In these instances, only the sponsor (or their designee) can make the decisions. In her desire to be customer focused, Meg has upset the customer that matters most—the project sponsor.

There may be many stakeholders on a project. There are the people who will use the solution you deliver, as well as their managers. There are other people who are interested in, or affected by, the solution. There may be a Steering Committee. And then there is the sponsor.

While it is natural for the project team to want to please their customers, this desire to be “customer focused” often leads them to forget who the real customer of the project is.

However, when it comes to declaring success or failure, the sponsor is the customer that matters most. When it comes to managing expectations, the sponsor is the person who matters most. And when it comes time to change the budget or delivery date, the sponsor is the person with the power.

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.

Keep your sponsor happy

Are there methods you use to communicate scope change to your project sponsor? What’s the best way to keep your sponsor up to date? Share your tactics with TechRepublic in a discussion below or in an e-mail.