Colin D Ellis
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The Project Sponsor's New Clothes

In his 1837 short story The Emperor’s New Clothes, Danish author Hans Christian Anderson wrote about a vain king obsessed with his appearance. One day, two weavers (who were looking to exploit the king) promised the emperor a new suit of clothes of superior quality that they said were invisible to those who are unfit for their positions, stupid or incompetent. 

Not wanting to appear to be any of these things, the emperor pretended to be able to see these new clothes as did everyone around him. As he paraded through the streets in his new clothes, the people - not wanting to appear stupid or incompetent - also pretended to be able to see them until a child, who didn’t understand the need for the pretence, shouted out ‘But he has nothing on!’. The bubble of pretence burst and everyone repeated what the child had said, whilst the king, realising what he’d said was true, simply carried on as if nothing were different.

I remember hearing this story as a child and being ever so slightly confused. Although to be fair, between the ages of 1-7, I was slightly confused about everything. Only when I started work did its significance dawn upon me.

I thought about it again a few weeks ago when meeting with a senior executive of a financial institution, who referred to project sponsorship as ‘wearing a different hat’.

My response was ‘It’s not a different hat, it’s a completely different set of clothes. And unfortunately, you can’t always see them.’

His assertion during the meeting was that project managers simply weren’t good enough, regardless of the methods they used. In his eyes they were a heady mix of lazy, unmotivated and rudderless types lurching from one failure to another.

As the self-appointed realistic optimistic spokesperson for project management worldwide, I felt the need to stand up for my profession and let him know that committed executive sponsorship is still the number one contributor to project success (1), and had been for some time.

That countless reviews around the world continue to pinpoint the reasons for failure and that the role played by the sponsor was principal among them.

That 48% of organisations do not have an effective or engaged sponsor. (2)

That for the last 20 years we spent billions of dollars upskilling project managers, for no tangible increase in project success (3), but in organisations where 80 percent of projects have executive sponsor support, 65 percent more projects are successful. (4)

That, whenever I run project leadership development programs for organisations, executives are often too busy to attend or it’s simply not a priority.

That Accenture found the US government could save as much as $995bn by 2025 by increasing efficiency in program management practices, starting with the role of the sponsor. (5)

That senior managers - regardless of the amount of detail placed before them - are still reluctant to make critical decisions about projects. (6)

Or that large projects continue to fail around the world as a result of senior management weakness. (7)

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe poor project management is solely to blame for continuing project failure. However, I’m doing a lot of work around the world and I see a lot of naked project sponsors and no-one is telling them to put something on.

My new book The Project Rots From The Head: How Senior Managers Can Stop Projects From Failing, Forever is out now! Order your copy here.

Illustration by Red Cheeks Factory

1. Standish Group Chaos Report
2. KPMG Driving Business Performance, PM Survey 2017
3. Standish Group Chaos Report
4. PMI Pulse of the Profession Report 2016
5. Improving Program Management in the Federal Government
6. Victorian Ombudsman investigation into ICT-enabled projects
7. HUD Needs to Address Management and Governance Weaknesses That Jeopardize Its Modernization Efforts

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Colin EllisComment