Support from a primary sponsor is a key component in project success. Without these influential people helping to grease the wheels, important initiatives run the risk of failure. In the near term, assistance from sponsors aids in securing necessary funding and other resources. Looking ahead, sponsor support can be crucial in handling unexpected challenges and maintaining the organization’s commitment when a project is large, complex, or when the target completion date is a long way out.
Occasionally a project may lose one of its primary sponsors, and the way PMs respond to this situation can mean the difference between success or failure.
To begin the process of dealing with the loss of a primary sponsor, you need to alert the team to the latest news. There may be some initial need for confidentiality, but pull your group together and inform them of the development as soon as it’s appropriate to do so. It’s important they know what’s going on and that there may be some changes coming down the pike. Encourage them to express any concerns they might have about the change. Your team is a good resource for identifying a project’s sponsorship needs and potential opportunities for partnerships.
Another early priority for any PM at this point is to examine the project’s remaining support structure. Initiatives—especially those that have visibility at the highest levels of the organization—often receive support from more than one sponsor. Look now to see who is still available to help the team and consider if their influence will be enough to ensure uninterrupted progress as the project continues forward.
Once you know who’s remaining in your group of sponsors, you should reach out immediately to engage them. Depending on the situation, your other sponsors may be unaware that you’ve lost a backer. Ask them if they have ideas about other well-placed people who would be good advocates for the project. You may discover some new and valuable allies.
If discussions with your remaining sponsor base don’t yield any fresh backers, consider if the project is adequately supported with the existing team. Do your advocates have enough influence to go to bat for the project in the event of any issues? Are they able to authorize funding, staffing, or other resources? Will their support be sufficient to get your project to the finish line? Don’t despair: Even with the loss of a sponsor, your project may still be in good shape.
However, if the answer to any of the above questions is “no,” then it’s time to look for a replacement primary sponsor. This sounds like a difficult prospect, particularly mid-stream, but it doesn’t need to be overwhelming. Executives or senior leaders whose divisions will benefit from the project but haven’t been directly involved in past discussions are potential sources. They may have pulled back earlier only because your original sponsors had support issues well in hand.
This is one instance when a portfolio view is particularly advantageous. As you examine the rest of the organization’s project portfolio, look for efforts scheduled later in the pipeline that depend heavily on the current initiative. Connect with the sponsors of those projects and see if they’re willing to add their support to your team. Emphasize the potential risks to their long-term goals if your project was to run out of momentum and experience issues such as delays, loss of resources, or even a reduction in scope. The sponsors of later initiatives likely don’t want to see their own projects’ benefits diminished. By advocating for your project now, they can help maintain progress and ensure they still achieve their expected results.