Can you ever have too much executive sponsorship in an IT project?

Most technology-based projects typically suffer from obscurity versus too much visibility. We often struggle with adoption of the solution or change management around using a new technology solution, so is too much visibility a negative? I have recently seen and experienced a project that suffered from too much executive involvement. I know that sounds funny. Can a sponsor ever be too involved? Can a project be derailed by someone's over involvement? Good questions, but ones to which I offer a resounding "Yes!" As with most things, there can be "too much of a good thing". Executive sponsorship is no exception to this old adage.

Why can too much executive sponsorship be bad? In looking at the basics of a project, what role does the sponsor play? A complex project is broken down into manageable tasks; project managers often refer to this as a work breakdown structure. Various individuals complete these tasks. In most projects, those individuals have assigned roles. With technology projects we often have roles like: project manager, business system analyst, technology architect, developer, and tester. When a project is planned, tasks are typically assigned to be complete by roles, as during the planning phase individuals may not yet be identified. Executive Sponsors (ESs) usually review and approve finalized tasks, deliverables, and/or milestones. Their role is more oversight than delivery-based. ESs also serve as project evangelists, conveying to the organization the importance of the solution. Budget typically comes from the ES, so the sponsor usually has a keen interest in the success of the project. If an individual takes on too many roles, tasks can be delayed or done poorly or even dropped. Likewise, if the ES takes on too many roles or gets over involved in too many tasks, they can negatively impact the results.

What are signs that tell us an ES is over-involved? Some of the warning signs include: a heightened stress level by project leadership during daily activities, struggles of line resources to complete daily tasks, frequent change in direction or focus or scope, and a project manager's loss of self-confidence. Here are common types of problems with over-involved ESs:

  1. Intimidation Factor – When an ES is involved and their position is widely known, and they expect deference to be paid to their job title, individuals act differently. Individuals are much more retiscient to discuss flaws or mistakes, for fear that the ES will think less of them or their peers. People clam up and it is much more challenging to get needed information from them.
  2. Fractured Purpose – When the ES strays from their defined role on the project and implants themselves in other roles/tasks, they can distract or discourage the task owner. An example of this is when ES takes over a status meeting or joint application development (JAD) meeting and alters the purpose of meetings they attend. They can hi-jack discussions for purposes other than the goals of the meeting. This can greatly increase the stress of those managing the project and trying to get needed information from the meetings or discussions.
  3. Micro-management – An ES asking you hourly progress of various tasks is just not helpful. Even their mere presence can cause worry and concern that you haven't completed something that you know they want. Its worse if they actually are looking over your shoulder watching you make spelling errors and code mistakes that are typical in early development of deliverables and or programs.
  4. Immediate Gratification Syndrome – ESs love to solve problems and like to do it quickly. Sometimes this problem solving can side track the project. This problem can occur with Project Managers and Team Leads too, but when the executive is demanding the project stop while a specific issue is addressed, the project stops! Such action can cause delays and might ultimately prove unnecessary as the problem may be solved in the natural course of the project or the results of the project.
  5. Center of Attention Factor – ESs alter team dynamics and can isolate team members inadvertently. I have found many ESs like the lime-light, which is why evangelist role suits them well. However ESs can overshadow the project and can make others feel like they are not getting credit for the work they are doing.

So why do Executive Sponsors sometimes derail projects? The ES is very visible in the organization, and so they have a lot on the line if a project fails. They so strongly desire the project to succeed, that they get impatient and jump into the details losing sight of the big picture (i.e. inability to "see the forest from the trees"). Sometimes the PM will complain about lack of resources to perform roles, so the ES will try to jump in and help. Often times because they believe a task is simple or easy, if the task turns out to be more complex, they discover they have stepped too deep in the …. mud, and can't extracate themselves. Occasionally the ES gets over-involved because they like the actual "doing" part of the project or they want to learn more about the technology or they simply like the team members or project location. Many factors can drive over-involvement, but most are bad reasons for the ES to get over-involved.

So how can ES be told they are over-involved and who's job is it to tell them. It is the Project Manager who must identify this situation and address it. How can the PM confront an over-involved ES:

  1. Direct Approach – Pull ES aside and delicately describe how their over-involvement is negatively impacting team. Beware – this can be a career limiting move if poorly done.
  2. Indirect Approach – Distract the ES with a specific role, assign him/her a project task. Keeping them busy could eliminate the negative impact.

I'm interested in hearing some other strategies to deal with this situaiton, and I'd also like to hear of other's experience with over-involved Executive Sponsors. Please send your strategies and stories to pcarr@captechconsulting.com.