The Project Sponsor from Hell – How to Cope

If you’re feeling like you want to die, it’s important to tell someone. You don’t have to struggle with difficult feelings alone.

As Christians, we should try to get along with the people around us. That does not mean we have to always agree with them, but we also should not intentionally look for opportunities to anger and upset people. Romans 12:18 tells us, “If it be possible, as much as lieth in you, live peaceably with all men.” This verse does not say it will always be possible, but we should try.

An executive who is sponsoring a project has critical decisions to make. They have to decide how to allocate resources between all the projects under their control. If ongoing projects are falling behind schedule and costs are increasing beyond those planned, the sponsor needs the relevant intelligence to decide whether to shift resources from one project to another. Most sponsors handle these estimating situations smoothly and professionally. However, there are sponsors who use high-pressure tactics. These sponsors often use the following statements:

  • “Any experienced project manager should be able to give me a precise estimate at the beginning of a project.”
  • “If you’re not capable, then we can allocate this project to someone else who can.”
  • “You’re causing problems, as I cannot make any decisions until you provide a confirmed project end date.”
  • “The project plan is padded with at least 25% fat. Cut these numbers down to something that’s realistic.”
  • “I don’t care, just get it done.”

Key behavioral characteristics of a Project Sponsor from hell include:

  • Overt or veiled threats; fear-inducing communication and behavior
  • Dodging issues, acting oblivious or playing dumb, changing the subject to distract away from the issue, canceling meetings, and avoiding people
  • Always asking for important information at the last minute, particularly before meetings
  • Emailing at all hours of the night and especially on the weekends
  • Intentionally withholding key project information or giving the team misleading information
  • Constantly changing expectations, guidelines, and scope of assignments. A constant inconsistency of word and action (e.g. not following through on things said)
  • Shifting blame to others as a scapegoat; not taking responsibility for problems or issues

New project managers who have not encountered a Project Sponsor from Hell and the games they play can get sucked into this manipulation. These sponsors have one operating principle, they believe fear will drive the project manager and team to work unrealistic hours to finish the project early and under budget. They believe that forcing the project manager to commit to an unrealistic project completion date will motivate the team to drop other things, including their personal lives and ignore their significant others to meet that deadline. Above all the project sponsor must be seen to be in the right. As a project manager it is important to realize that when given a project, you are actually given two things. The project itself and the constraints (i.e. the project has to be completed by a certain date, within a certain budget, or the scope of the project has already been decided or some combination of these). In such situations, if you try to deal with both the project and constraints together you will potentially get yourself into trouble.

The Number One Reason Why Projects Fail, Is Because They Were Not Possible in the First Place and Were Doomed to Fail

More often than not, the project manager and the team quickly realize that the sponsor’s expectations are completely unachievable. Rather than working themselves to death, they put the “poison chalice” project on the back burner and work on projects that have a greater chance of success. In fact, these intimidating sponsors usually have the highest project failure rates in the organization as project managers and team members go to great lengths to avoid both the project sponsor and projects where failure is almost certain.

How to Survive 
No matter how much due diligence you undertake to avoid being allocated a “poison chalice” project with a Project Sponsor from Hell, you’ll probably have to work on at least one at some point in your career, so you need to know how to cope:

  1. If you only remember one thing, it’s the magic line. When somebody hands you a project, the last thing on earth you should say is ‘sure’. Instead, you need to say, ‘I’ll take a look at it’. Someone comes running into you and say’s here is the project and I need an answer right now, you say ‘I’ll take a look at it’. The senior executive is in a meeting jumping up and down banging the table and says, I need to know right now, you should say, ‘I’m going to have to take a look at it’. It’s the only reasonable and sensible answer when you are given a project. Colossians 4:6 “ Let your speech be always with grace, seasoned with salt, that ye may know how ye ought to answer every man.”
  2. You need to recognize that no organization has ever fired a project manager for refusing to commit to a completion date or budget for a project without first interrogating the project in detail.
  3. You cannot count on the professional integrity of the sponsors. Accordingly, every mention of completion dates or estimates should be in writing. By all means, communicate estimating data verbally or over the phone. But confirm it in writing. It’s also wise to put a copy of all the estimating correspondences into the project work file and let the sponsor know you’re doing that with a cc to the project file. You are accountable to God for your own actions. You cannot control what the other person does, but you can control how you respond.
  4. Never give an estimate that is just a point value, instead, always give a range. In other words, never say“the project will be completed by the 10th May.” What you say is “I’m 80% certain it will be done between May 10 and May 30”. Do the same with your budget estimates by estimating a range i.e. “the project will cost between £100,000 and £110,000.“

If you follow the rules (and remember to pray on everything you do), you give yourself a defense against the Project Sponsor misrepresenting what you said or telling others that you made commitments, when it’s simply not true.

Realize that ignoring a problem does not make it go away. One of the greatest missionary evangelists of all time, the Apostle Paul, had a disagreement with his mentor Barnabas. These two great men could not avoid a conflict. It is unlikely that we can too. Read more:

Importance of Status Reports
As you are identifying stakeholders who are affected by your project for this sponsor, it is a good idea to include them in your published weekly status reports. You don’t want to take a lot of their time but you want them to have a snapshot of what is happening on the project. Often manipulative sponsors restrict the number of people who receive status reports. On some occasions, they will take over the status reporting job altogether. When the sponsor starts talking about doing this, the alarm bell should ring. It’s important to have a list of managers and executives who have asked for status reporting data and you should issue this information to them on a regular basis.

It’s great to have a series of status reports that identify variances and also those people who have received them. While your status reports should be short and concise it should also have a forecast every week of the completion date and estimated budget (both expressed as ranges). That way you have a good defense against accusations of variances that may have come as a surprise to the project board.

Summary
You may go through your entire project management career and never encounter sponsor like the one mentioned. However, just tuck this article in the back of your project management toolkit and keep these defensive measures in mind if you do encounter a Project Sponsor from Hell.

Written by Richard Jones

I want to help you to see news events as starting points for constructive conversations. I seek to cut through the froth of the political spin cycle to underlying truths and values. I want to be so focused on progress that together we can provide a credible and constructive counter-narrative to the hopelessness-, anger-, and fear-inducing brand of discourse that is so pervasive in the news.

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