And now, a word for our Sponsors

It seems that all words of advice in the program management world are focussed on Program Managers. It is certainly of benefit to learn how to be a good one.

But how many people think of the good and bad lessons that can help or destroy Sponsors in their very important but undervalued role?

As a sponsor it is easy to overlook the most basic of questions. Sponsors rush to make sure they understand the value they are to deliver. What most sponsors do not do is make sure they understand the nature of the delivery. Are you delivering a project, a program, or a portfolio?

In delivering a project the focus is upon delivering a specific thing within time and budget. Not simple to do, but the focus is upon removing roadblocks and ensuring the most effective use of resources. Strange as this may seem, for a Sponsor, there is not an enormous difference when delivering a single program! It is about the value delivered more than just one thing, but the principles are similar. Let the program manager deal with the sequencing, but overall the focus is on a single set of risks, assumptions, issues and dependencies.

Where well meaning sponsors are tripped up is when they are presented with a portfolio. This is vastly more complicated. It is in this scenario that I have seen inexperienced program managers cause sponsors to make poor choices disguised as “efficiencies”.

Let me explain.

When running a single program the RAID concept is fairly easy to follow. There is only a one roadmap and so seeing where things might go wrong and learning to adapt is reasonably straightforward, even for new or inexperience Program Managers and Sponsors.

In a portfolio there is an increased tension. The role of the Portfolio Office is elevated to be the eyes and ears of the Sponsor. Program Managers have a choice. Learn to use these resources to improve and deliver alongside other programs, or, as is unfortunately more often the case, set out to undermine and destroy this vital sponsor resource.

A sponsor of a portfolio relies on some simple but very effective tools. The first is an integrated roadmap. Without this the sponsor will be “flying blind” and be constantly forced to react to the cascading impact of one program on all of the other programs. Dedicating support to producing this artefact is an investment in governance that is well worth the effort. A portfolio sponsor ignores this at their almost guaranteed peril! Individual program managers will often seek to assure a portfolio sponsor that this is unnecessary. This is poor advice and speaks to inexperience in a portfolio; where focus on one program is simply not good enough.

The other is Integrated RAID. Now what program manager would not want to know what may go wrong and how to mitigate those things? A good sponsor would benefit from considering why someone would want to reduce transparency in what they are doing; who benefits from obfuscation in a portfolio? Certainly not the sponsor!

In a portfolio the Sponsor must think differently to be successful. Transparency in the integration of roadmaps and RAID provide early mechanisms to deliver outcomes that no single program manager can with their singular focus.

Perhaps the first item on the Risk Register for a sponsor in a portfolio situation should be the risk that they will be swayed by a program manager to make poor choices for the portfolio, disguised as efficiencies. Any decision that reduces the opportunity to see the integration of RAID or the roadmap should give a Portfolio Sponsor a significant moment of pause to rethink.

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Nathan Jones