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Back to Basics: Project Manager vs. Project Sponsor

I regularly conduct PMP training workshops. About one hour in, I discuss project stakeholders, and almost always the same question comes up: What is the difference between the project manager and the project sponsor?

Students ask me this question because different organizations use different titles to represent project roles. It seems there is always a difference of opinion about the role of the project manager vs. the project sponsor.

In this article, I will be covering the differences between these two roles.

Differences

In a previous ‘Back to Basics’ article, I wrote about the role of a project manager. I compared the project manager to a conductor of an opera. For our purposes here, let’s liken the project manager and project sponsor to the director and producer of a movie.

Here is an excerpt from screenskills.com:

Directors are the creative leads for the film. They hold the creative vision throughout the whole process, from pre-production to the final edit.

They are employed by the executive producer or producer, who is ultimately in charge of the production. Directors start with a script and work with a screenwriter and sometimes a script editing team. It’s not uncommon for the director to be the screenwriter, as well.

These two paragraphs clearly enunciate the difference between a movie director and producer.

Project managers are akin to the movie directors. They hold the project vision, and their main job is to orchestrate and drive the team to meet the project goals.

Project sponsors, on the other hand, are like movie producers. They provide funds and resources for the project, and their main job is to provide support to the project manager, so that the manager can meet the project goals.

Relationship between Manager and Sponsor

Project sponsors usually sit one level above project managers. The following diagram depicts the relationship between them.

As you can see, the project manager is shown as a subordinate of the sponsor, but it is also possible that there is no direct reporting relationship between the manager and sponsor.

Even if there is no reporting relationship between them, sponsors are always higher up in the organizational hierarchy than managers. Sponsor have higher authority and more decision-making power than managers.

Role of a Project Manager

The PMBOK Guide defines the project manager as the person assigned by the performing organization to lead the team that is responsible for achieving the project objectives.

A project manager is involved in day-to-day handling of the project and does everything that is necessary to meet the project objectives.

A project manager oversees all aspects of a project which includes team management, schedule preparation, resource assignments, budgeting, and progress tracking.

Go back to my previous article to fully understand the role of a project manager.

Role of a Project Sponsor

The PMBOK Guide defines the project sponsor as a person or group who provides resources and support for the project, program, or portfolio and is accountable for enabling success.

Sponsors are senior officers. They are generally not involved in day-to-day handling of the project, but they provide support to project managers in order to make the project successful.

Sponsors provide funds, resources, leadership, and support to successfully complete the project. They keep the project’s costs and schedule under control while making sure that the project delivers quality results.

Sponsors represent the business side of a project. Generally, their involvement in the project starts much before the project manager is identified. Sometimes, their involvement starts even before the inception of the project.

Sponsors carry the overall ownership of a project. They try to promote the project within and outside the performing organization. They keep the project on the priority list of the organization and approve changes to the project when necessary. They act as a conduit between the senior executive team and the project manager.

Sponsors identify and assign the project manager to the project. They authorize the project manager to use the organizational resources to complete the project.

Let’s consider the responsibilities of a project sponsor initiation to closing of a project.

Initiation

The sponsor completes the following tasks during the initiation phase of the project:

  1. Defines project objectives and success criteria.
  2. Organizes project kick-off meeting to announce formal start of the project.
  3. Identifies members of the core project team.
  4. Identifies and appoints the project manager.
  5. Signs off on project charter.
  6. Gives mandates to the project manager to use organizational resources to complete the project objectives.
  7. Provides business documents , such as the business case, feasibility study, and contract, to the project manager.
  8. Gives commitment to provide funds and resources throughout the project.
  9. Gives guidance and provides leadership to the project team.

Planning

During the planning phase, the sponsor does the following:

  1. Participates in initial project meeting for the development of scope, schedule, resource plan, and project organizational chart.
  2. Verifies the project scope statement to ensure that it’s well defined.
  3. Negotiates with the customer to keep project scope within pre-defined limits.
  4. Reviews and approves the project schedule.
  5. Negotiates with functional managers to get experienced and skillful team members.
  6. Ensures that the project is adequately staffed.
  7. Decides project budget and conveys it to the project manager.
  8. Reviews and approves the overall project plan.
  9. Provides support to the project manager for any challenges or escalations.
  10. Helps the project manager to mitigate project threats and realize opportunities.
  11. Resolves differences of opinion among the project stakeholders to gain consensus.

Execution

During execution, the sponsor:

  1. Provides support to the project manager and project team for doing project work.
  2. Ensures funds are disbursed in a timely manner.
  3. Shields the project from unnecessary interreference from internal and external stakeholders.
  4. Encourages and motivates the project manager and team members to complete the project deliverables.
  5. Helps in third party contract
  6. Acts as a conduit between project manager and senior executive committee.
  7. Prevents unnecessary changes and scope creep.
  8. Takes care of additional funding and resource requirements.

Monitoring and Controlling

Throughout the monitoring and controlling phase, the sponsor performs the following tasks:

  1. Periodically assesses project deadlines or goals.
  2. Approves adjustments to project plan as necessary.
  3. Implements change control processes and approves documented change requests.
  4. Evaluates project progress and provides feedback when appropriate.
  5. Provides approval of the finished project deliverables.
  6. Identifies, addresses, and resolves any issues as they emerge.
  7. Provides approval of the completion of key project milestones.
  8. Makes adjustments to the approved project plans.

Closing

When a project is complete and during the closing phase, the sponsor:

  1. Evaluates project performance based on previously defined success criteria.
  2. Ensures project is successfully handed over to the customer.
  3. Ensures that customer signs-off on the project.
  4. Participates in the project lessons learned session to determine project successes and failures.
  5. Provides guidance for creating the project closure report.
  6. Releases or reassigns the project team members.
  7. Helps in closing the open third-party contracts.
  8. Helps in taking care of any legal formalities.

Conclusion

Project managers and project sponsors have a hierarchical and symbiotic relationship. Both have a motive to complete the project objectives successfully. They have their own set of responsibilities, but they collaborate with each other to ensure that the project benefits are realized.

What title do you use for project sponsor in your organization? Do you know of any other responsibilities of a project sponsor? Do you think project managers and sponsors have some overlapping responsibilities?

I would love to hear from you in the comments section below.

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Written by Praveen Malik

Praveen Malik, PMP, has two-plus decades of experience as a project management instructor and consultant. He regularly conducts project management workshops in India and abroad and shares his project management thinking in his blog, PM by PM.

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