Effective Stakeholder Relationships: Coping with Two Project Sponsors

The major stakeholder on a project is normally the project sponsor, but what happens if you end up working on a project which is co-sponsored? That means you have two people to answer to and you have to ask the question: who is actually in charge?
Note: Thank you to ProWorkflow, this month’s Leadership Sponsor of our Featured Series on Building Effective Stakeholder Relationships.
This situation arises when you’re working on a project that has two major stakeholder groups – for example the facilities manager who is responsible for procuring and opening a new branch and the general manager who will run the branch once it’s open. Ideally, one of these key senior managers would take the sponsor role, but in some organizations, the decision will be made to let them head the project together.
It’s not an ideal situation. In fact, it’s pretty difficult to manage and making sure you are managing both critical stakeholders effectively is really important. And with 66.5% of people surveyed in research for the book Strategies for Project Sponsorship saying that good sponsorship is critical for project success, you’ll need to build relationships with them both and help them build relationships with each other as well if you want your project to succeed.

Getting work approved

If you have children, you’ll know that they sometimes play one parent off against the other. If they don’t get the answer they want from one, they’ll ask the other in the hope of getting a different result. Don’t fall into that trap with two project sponsors. For each decision, one sponsor should have the final say. If you need to make a call about the electricity provider for the new branch, it should be the facilities manager. If you need to decide about office furniture, the general manager should do it.
Unfortunately, not all decisions are so clear cut. You risk one of several scenarios:

  • No one makes a decision at all
  • The decision is delayed while they argue for weeks
  • One makes the decision and the other disagrees, causing more conflict and confusion on the project team about what to do
  • They both agree
  • One disagrees but the decision is made for the good of the project and the issue is dropped.

There are several things you can do to make this area of stakeholder management a little bit easier:

  • Split the responsibilities equally so that they both know what areas they are responsible for and you know who to go to for a decision about each area. If you do this, be aware that decisions still have to be communicated to the other party and ideally discussed together first before a final call is made. Otherwise you risk alienating the other sponsor and all the problems that come with poor communication on a project team.
  • Document the decisions that have been made. Create a log in your project files and note down who made the decision, when, what was agreed, and what the next steps are. This gives you a concrete record so that you can go back and re-validate decisions in the future if you need to.
  • Ask them to delegate some decision making powers to you. Agree your approval limits or the kind of things that you will be able to make decisions about. Obviously you’ll still need to let them know what is happening and be clear about what falls outside your span of control so that you can refer appropriate decisions to them, but it should make some of the smaller decisions easier to handle if they trust you enough to let you work it out yourself.

Getting changes approved

So, your new branch is almost ready for opening. There’s a little bit of money left in the budget and you approach the sponsors for their ideas about what could be done with it. They both know that there is a formal change control process so their ideas will be subject to that and they will jointly agree which changes to approve and prioritize.
However, the facilities manager thinks that environmentally-friendly extras should be the top priority, like solar panels and recycling, as this will reduce the overall running costs of the building. The general manager thinks that customer service should be the top priority and wants to install extra customer seating, a new coffee machine and increase the sales training for the staff from one day to two.
Both of these sound like pretty good investments, and it isn’t the project manager’s decision. So what do you do?
When two people want to prioritize different things, your best solution is to get them together and discuss pros and cons of each change as a group. Let them argue the case and agree one route or the other, or a compromise where they both get something. Your role is to facilitate this discussion.
Overall, managing the relationship between two sponsors comes down to that: facilitation. It’s important to maintain open communication channels and a good sense of humor, especially as it’s a difficult project situation with plenty of challenges. Good luck!

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