Having a Project done to you (aka Empathy for your sponsor)

What happens when a Project Manager gets to sponsor a project?  Should they try to wrest control, micromanage, and get involved in the planning sessions?  Or should they try to sit back and trust the person leading their project?

Oddly enough, many project Sponsors that I have worked with have previously managed projects themselves before moving up in the organization, and this is a conundrum that they have to deal with each time they start working with a new Project Manager.

It’s pretty rare that, as Project Managers, we are the clients or sponsors of project.  Sometimes there are interdependencies – especially if working on part of a larger Program – but rarely are we the principal client.  To truly become a Senior Project Manager, I would propose that you sponsor a project using your own money with a big impact on your life.

Recently, my wife and I hired a General Contractor to complete some renovations to our house.  Because we had been talking about these renovations for a while, she and I had sat down and listed out exactly what we wanted done – from the layout of our kitchen to paint colors to where we wanted a wall moved.  We had what we thought were a comprehensive list of requirements.

We interviewed 3 General Contractors, and hired the one that brought his team of trades out to site to review and provide input to the estimate.  One line item on his quote was “Project Management – 20% overhead”, which made me feel comfortable that he would be involved in managing schedule, scope, and budget.

Except he wasn’t.  As the project commenced, we learned ours was one of the first residential jobs that he had completed after years of managing commercial jobs.

There were problems with his project management, and there were problems with his assumptions about some requirements that we did not state in our scope.  He worked hard trying to keep things moving, and even chipped in to help the trades, but clearly had not worked on a project like this before

Every schedule that was presented was wrong one day after it was presented; eventually he gave up giving us a schedule and the trades would show up when convenient for them.  When we asked him about the assumptions he was making, he said he wasn’t making any assumptions.  When we asked him about the risks, he said the only risk was weather.  After a few weeks on the job, he came back asking for more money as his original estimate was too low.  We also had his trades asking us directly to get paid, as he hadn’t paid them.

A bathroom in our basement that we hadn’t really given much thought to caused further problems.  We came home one afternoon to find that he had instructed his trades to install a t-bar ceiling (think office ceiling tiles) in our main bathroom because it would be faster to install and be easier for accessing plumbing in case of maintenance required.  We weren’t consulted on this decision and had to stop him as he was buying materials.  He was visibly frustrated that we didn’t agree with his tactic or guidance from his years of working on commercial properties.  He didn’t get that we wanted a bathroom to match the other ones in our house, not a functional public washroom.

No matter how much we challenged, pushed, or complained, we could not influence how this General Contractor was managing our project.  At points, I would try to give him basic tools, such as a calendar, to help illustrate when certain pieces of work would be done; but this was to no avail.  As quality fell and delivery slipped well passed the planned completion date, we were being backed into a corner to approve a change request else our project would not get done.  We were having a project done to us.

After this experience, I had so much more empathy for all of my past Project Sponsors.  How many times has a project sponsor been able to foresee danger, doom, peril, or missteps given their depth of experience that I did not?  I can think of a few projects from very early in my career where I was doing a project to my Sponsors.  I now understand their level of frustration for the times that I went back for more money and time (even if it was due to known risk events).

Your responsibility, as a Project Manager, is to understand the expectations of your Sponsor and present to them a single plan to deliver your project.  You must ensure that your assumptions are communicated (which is a two-way process), and be sure that the risks are well understood for how they can impact the project.  You are doing this project FOR your Sponsor, not TO your Sponsor.

Have you ever had an experience that has given you empathy for your Project Sponsor/Client?