Do Agile projects need Sponsors?

Agile Project Management SponsorshipA common mantra of Agile practitioners and change agents is that one of the key success criteria for Agile transformations is strong executive sponsorship. There has been much written on the importance of a good sponsor who guides and leads the team, is available to govern and advise, is approachable, and most importantly, has ‘skin in the game’. A great sponsor will be connected to the project’s benefits in a way that motivates them to stay engaged.

‘Bad’ Sponsors vs ‘Good’ Sponsors

We have all worked with the disengaged sponsor who pays hardly any attention to the project, allowing the project manager and team members to make decisions from their own perspective, often resulting in projects getting a result that suits very few people. It is not directly the fault of the people left in charge, but they are often not senior enough in the organisation to see the whole picture, or have the experience to implement a solution that suits the multiple needs of the large stakeholder group. Often the blame falls to the project manager, or the person who ended up being the sponsor by default. There are calls for ‘stronger project leadership’, ‘more engaged project sponsors’ or ‘one throat to choke’ (yes, seriously). An engaged sponsor can be the difference between any project, Agile or not, succeeding or failing. I have seen countless examples of successful projects with strong project sponsorship, and examples of failed projects with little or no good sponsorship. Could sponsorship be the ‘secret sauce’ of successful projects? Or should we just stick with feeding people?

If the Team is Good?…

Here’s the challenge. Although strong sponsorship is essential, how can we hang our hats on this completely when Agile is non hierarchical? Agile succeeds with the teams themselves choosing the work they need to do based on their understanding of business value. The teams set the work cadence and hold each other to account. There is no room in the team structure for hierarchy. The team is flat, everyone has input into the work that needs doing, and works together holding each other to account to ensure it gets done. The structure of Agile simply does not support hierarchy. Agile struggles to work in hierarchical organisations as the moment there is a structure with managers and people reporting to them, there is no longer the ability to equally input into work, and the team loses the benefits that come from holding each other to account. Even as the project manager, I welcomed my teams telling me if there was something I was doing they were not happy about. It would not have worked if they had called each other on behaviours but not me. And in the learning environment we are constantly being exposed to through new information and tools, everyone is pulled up at some point. Even if it’s just to be reminded that we agreed there would be no side conversations in stand ups.

When is good Sponsorship helpful?

So we have an efficient self managing team who sets the pace of work and works together to ensure the work gets done. As they are selecting the work to do based on business value (and of course any technical dependencies), how does a strong sponsor make the difference? I’m going to suggest two ideas, and purposely stay away from the idea of leadership. After all, with a self managing team, leadership comes from within.

1. ‘In the Moment’ Decisions

Sometimes things happen, and even the best team will be stumped. It can be helpful to have someone who is not involved in the day-to-day to come in with a fresh perspective. A strong project sponsor is the perfect person to bring a challenge to. They will apply their knowledge (perhaps knowledge the team does not have) to help solve the team’s problem. It may even be a decision that the team could be divided on. A good project sponsor will be able to make that decision after listening to the team and understanding the problem from their perspective.

2. Symbolic

A strong sponsor can be a symbol of the powerful, all knowing executive who ‘has the bigger picture’ and a strong sense of knowing where the project is going beyond the project itself. The ability to link the project outcomes to organisational strategy and know ‘just the right thing’ to do when things go wrong is a great asset to a project team. This is not something that is needed all the time, but this knowing can be helpful. Not only for in the moment decisions above, but also just the symbol of knowing the team has that super power to call on. It is more of a symbol than a functional asset to the team that makes them feel supported. This symbolic aspect could also spring for the occasional morning tea or pizza night.

These are two. Are there more? And can a team do without sponsorship completely?



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About Emma Sharrock

Emma is the author of The Agile Project Manager: Thrive in Change with Agile. An experienced change leader, Emma is passionate about working with people to facilitate successful change. Emma utilises Agile techniques, coupled with the Agile mindset to coach leaders and teams to achieve their business goals.