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A Sponsor Who Didn’t like Project Managers?!?

As part of MPUG’s 2018 Community Survey, we asked the question, “Are you getting the feedback you need from program sponsors?” The results came in, and we learned that over 50% of you thought this area needed improvement. Another 18% of you said an affirmative “NO” in answer to this question, which led us to ask a few weeks back, what is going on with your project sponsors?

Well, we received a “winner” nightmare story, which is published anonymously below:

I once had a sponsor that knew he needed someone to be in charge of projects. The problem was he just had a serious disdain for all Project Managers. He also had a strong dislike of any sort of formality at all. He would determine what project his department was going to work on, and then he would get someone to be in charge of the project. It was usually a Project Manager, but if someone was in the hallway at the wrong time and made eye contact with him, they might find themselves in charge of something they hadn’t quite bargained for.

After an informal discussion or phone call with the new PM to kick off the project, he’d assume the person was off and running. Of course, he wouldn’t commit to anything on paper. Project definition was always extremely brief and rarely helpful. It was always something generic and short such as, “Create Report on XYZ for me.” For a large project, it might be a whole sentence, but something like, “Create a new website portal that allows customers make payments.”

To make matters worse, his projects always seemed to be IT centric, even though his department was not IT. It would be up to the PM to go to IT and get the appropriate resources, or go around IT, if needed, since this sponsor didn’t see the need for system or app congruity. Getting detailed information out of him was difficult. Your best bet was to hope the project idea was generated by someone else. At least then you could quiz them about the project and/or dig for the requirements.

Of course, budget, time, and scope were never defined, and therefore never achieved by the Project Manager. And it was always the PM’s fault for not hitting the targets–you know the one’s that were only in the sponsor’s head. Since nothing was documented when he presented the results of these projects to his equals or superiors, they were always promoted as on time, on budget, and the outcome exactly what was desired from the beginning.

Many Project Managers, including myself, did our own documentation as an attempt to protect ourselves. We collected unanswered emails and scope documents that were not signed, but it seemed he was still always able to place the blame on the poor person who couldn’t possibly read his mind.

Naturally, he was promoted to a higher functional level in the organization. I guess due to the fact that his department functioned ok overall—or was it because he was so good at getting projects done on time, on budget, and always within the un-defined scope?

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  1. This is very common. It’s called Survivor – Project Island Edition. You have to outwit, outsmart, and outmaneuver this sponsor. His superiors don’t care about his methods or the body count in his path since it looks like he gets results. The lack of organizational controls allows this reckless behavior to continue.

    I had a sponsor/boss (bad idea) who would go back to resource managers and refuse to pay for their peoples’ time after the fact. They haggled it down every single time and he changed the records that went to accounting! He had less assertive people trained to go along with his demands. Nobody in accounting picked up on his constant “mistake corrections” to the hours for re-billing. The resource departments’ budgets were always way over from absorbing his project costs. I refused to manually change the hours on my projects because that’s dishonest and could get ME in trouble. If there’s going to be fraud, it won’t be my doing. He was verbally abusive to his PMs and would threaten disciplinary action frequently. I had chest pain while working for him. I was dumbfounded nobody outed him to Finance or HR for hostile work environment, but we were all paralyzed with fear. When cornered, he blamed everybody in a ten mile radius for being incompetent, under skilled, lazy, and for putting *him* in a tough spot. He suddenly became the victim. I didn’t file complaints because I was young and didn’t know how to advocate for myself or keep records about the bullying. I left that company because of him and the fact his leadership turned a blind eye to the damage he was doing to people.

    At a different place, I had been on several “doozy” assignments and had a PMO manager who confronted the sponsor/trouble makers and informed them he was removing all of his PMs from their work because of the stressful conditions they created for us. It was a beautiful thing. He permanently won my respect that day, and theirs too. I was sad the day he retired. I try to live up to that example in my work.

    Doing things the PMBOK or PRINCE2 (or any other standard way) assumes the organization is mature enough to value orderly and controlled work, transparency, understands the expense of being chaotic, and wants to get better at it. When you’re not on that planet, you have to seriously evaluate whether you can stay or should go somewhere your work is appreciated and you have management support.

    If you get assigned to someone like this and you aren’t covered by a strong PMO or your own management…get off that assignment any way you can for your own mental health. If nobody will take that sponsor’s requests, it sends a message back to the leadership. He will have to accrue more expense for outside consulting PMs.

  2. I agree 100% (or more if that’s possible) with the above. If you have good experience and skills, there’s no reason to remain in such a frustrating and damaging position. It is surprising that despite the evidence, some management still undervalues/doesn’t recognize what has to happen for good project management. Thanks for the excellent comments above. Hope everyone reads them!

  3. Is this a good story for lessons learned? I don’t think so!
    I think it needs a closure on what to do should PMs encounter bosses like these besides just documenting disaster in the making. May be some expert 3rd party advice on antidotes would help.

  4. I totally agree with Mustafa. Disappointed that I followed this link to only read HALF of a story.

  5. It was a good essay but it needs to be resolved. As a PM for 25+ years and a EPM/PPM Consultant for 15 years, I have run into this before. In many cases, they are people who tend to deal with high concept ideas very well, and avoid the details. They avoid the details because they (1) don’t function that way (2) don’t know the details or (3) don’t want the responsibility related to having to support defining details and then approving the design and plan for the project. People fitting into (1) or (2) are generally easier to work with. It’s the third type (and to a lesser extent, they first) that has a disdain for Project Managers and Project Management in general. They see PMs impediments to their vision.

    It’s up to Project Management to tell the Sponsor, “Look, for this work to be done, we need this information, this support, these people and this money and if we get that with your help, then we can be successful together and meet our budget and schedule goals. If not, this will be a long and painful process that I will document the bejeezus out of.” Not everyone is comfortable saying that, so sometimes you need to bring your manager, or the Sponsor’s peer to help convey that idea.

  6. This was my sponsor and my article. I understand your concern about “Lessons Learned” or about “what to do”. First, I agree with the comments by The Country PM – you have to advocate for yourself and you have to make sure that you are not doing unethical or things that will deflect to you and get you in trouble when the sponsor bails on you and then blames you.

    So, in this case, there were two main types of “PM’s” (remember, you were a “PM” if he designated you as such) – those that did their best to be a real Project Manager and document what was needed and do what was standard practice to manage a project. Then, there were the PM’s the decided that if the sponsor didn’t care AND HE KEPT GETTING REWARDED that they would follow that philosophy. Basically, those PM’s were following his coat-tails up the corporate ladder. Unfortunately, it didn’t seem to matter about those that were certified or not – some PMP’s were doing it “right” and some were doing it the way the sponsor wanted with little to no documentation or goals.

    This was an organization that didn’t value methodology or personnel. Rather, they valued the result. If the result was good (or claimed to be good) then everybody in management was happy. If the result was bad, a scapegoat was found and blamed. This was a very large organization and it wasn’t about to change it’s culture in the near term nor did it seem to have a desire to change in the long term.

    To me, the lesson learned was that when an organization runs like this one and is obviously promoting folks that make themselves look good over factual data then you have a few choices:
    1. Stay and hope you can be the positive change
    2. Stay and embrace the culture and be part of the problem
    3. Leave for a healthier environment.

    Just FYI – I chose number 3.

  7. Situational awareness is a survival skill. Knowing where you are on the chess board and which piece you are versus which pieces they are is vital. A pawn cannot overtake the Queen or King. When I was young and naïve I believed I could persuade these dysfunctional managers to see the light and value quality, respect, and relationships via projects done well. Boy was I wrong and my career suffered big time. They tested me to see if I was willing to do what it took and I chose integrity. They just do not care to know or do differently because there is no compelling reward for them to be better people and the cost of it is acceptable. They behave as they do because it works in that organization for all the pointless complaining and conspiring that happens around them. They know and they do not care. The people above them groom them to be this way despite how friendly they might act toward you in the hallway. If you can’t work like that or don’t want to become one of them yourself, you have to remove yourself from it. Eat or be eaten. It’s just that simple.


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