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The importance of sponsorship in delivering better project outcomes

Ian Lang, Strategy and Capital Investment Director at Edinburgh Airport, explains the benefits of the project sponsorship model and why it needs championing.

sponsorship model - airports

When we think of sponsorship it’s perhaps likely to be as the concept of corporate sponsorship; the idea of a brand or company choosing to associate itself with a product or service and in doing so lending its influence and support.

To succeed, capital projects require good stewardship

Whilst the type of sponsorship that is the focus of this article is functionally different to the perhaps more familiar understanding of sponsorship, they do both share the same core components; influence and most importantly, support. Ultimately, a sponsor in either context provides support by aligning themselves to something they see value in and so something they want to see succeed; they become a champion.

Sponsorship in relation to airports

Airports are themselves champions, champions of regional and national connectivity, a broad range of economic benefits to the communities they serve and extensive investment in job-supporting national infrastructure assets. But delivering a capital portfolio in a live airport environment is complex, especially when having to successfully navigate your way through the unique logistical and business requirements in addition to complex regulatory environments. So, to succeed, capital projects require good stewardship. Someone who is committed to being a champion, whose sponsorship is often the difference between failure and success.

An effective sponsor will act as a mentor to develop individuals as well as provide support and encouragement

The objective for most organisations when initiating a project is broadly the same – to deliver beneficial change to the business. Maintaining focus on this objective is crucial. Projects create risk, they consume resource and require funding, so championing with purpose, clarity and clear direction is something which can ensure timely and balanced decisions to the benefit of both the project and organisation. Whether you’re managing change in complex infrastructure, in technology or with people, it’s crucial that sponsors, as champions, wed teams to a clear set of common goals.

The role of the sponsor

At a task level, the sponsor’s role will always be to champion and promote the objectives of the change, secure the necessary funding and resources, as well as provide sound decision making against time, cost and quality matters. At a team level their role is to engage, motivate and lead whilst managing the complex array of stakeholders needs. At the individual level, an effective sponsor will act as a mentor to develop individuals as well as provide support and encouragement. Instilling confidence in teams through empowerment and by championing their needs as well as that of the project is something that’s not often considered significant in the oversight and management of a project. But it is key to growing skilled, capable and more self-sufficient teams.

They are a captain of sorts, focused on both the realisation of the benefits alongside leading people, both the team as a unit as well as the individuals of which it’s comprised

That’s why good sponsorship equates to not just better project but also better business outcomes. It provides more than mere direction; by always advocating for both the project and the team, a sponsor can promote a more fundamental sense of ownership and accountability. By inspiring this sense of ownership and alignment the team can be empowered to innovative and more proactively manage conflict and the inevitable bumps in the proverbial road, enabling them to get on with the day job; executing. If the sponsorship model is working, it’s not always appropriate or necessary to escalate up the tree and defer to the sponsor for permission to progress or for solutions to curve balls.

Therefore, the good sponsor will play a dual role. They are a captain of sorts, focused on both the realisation of the benefits alongside leading people, both the team as a unit as well as the individuals of which it’s comprised. An effective sponsor will succeed at both.

The responsibilities of the sponsor

For this model to thrive, sponsors must also champion a culture of openness, transparency and learning more broadly, beyond the confines of the project function. There is a sound body of evidence that says at the most basic level, high performing teams need clarity in their role as individuals, a collective sense of purpose as a team and an environment where collaboration is encouraged. Being empowered and motivated through clarity of role and unity of purpose means all parts of the project machine are pulling in the same direction, with decisions being taken using a common framework.

The legacy created by the sponsor model endures beyond obvious and tangible project outcomes

Building effective sponsorship capability within an organisation can be difficult, but is worthwhile if organisations see value in building sustainable change into their core capabilities, in order that they more consistently and autonomously deliver better project outcomes. Individuals best placed to succeed as sponsors fundamentally will have decision-making authority, but more critically a strong and genuine belief in the project’s mission. That personal affiliation with the value being created means sponsors have ‘skin in the game’ and a meaningful commitment to the cause to which they are lending their support.

For organisations now encountering such challenges, the project sponsorship model has obvious benefits and needs championing

Most organisations have functional expertise which can bring depth and perspective to a variety of business problems. That expertise and skill can ultimately help shape the project journey. So, it’s imperative that sponsors embrace the idea of asking for help and consulting widely across the organisation to seek out those who possess the relevant expertise to provide more insight and intelligence to support decision making. As well as providing technical insight and knowledge, genuine engagement such as this by the sponsor will invariably help to establish trust, increase the likelihood of collaboration and create a more resilient network of people willingly working to support, not only the sponsor and the project at hand, but the organisation’s objectives long term.

How a project is affected by sponsorship

The legacy created by the sponsor model endures beyond obvious and tangible project outcomes. It brings people together from across the organisation with all of the sharing of expertise, sparking of conversations and creativity that entails. These bonds and relationships forged often out live projects to the benefit of the organisation and often extend also to broader relationships with external partners.

Ultimately, there are many benefits that developing and embedding a project sponsor model can bring to organisations, but there are two which ought to stand out – the delivery of better project outcomes and an environment where teams thrive through collaboration and shared learning. 

The full impact of the current global pandemic on capital programmes at airports around the world is yet to be established but will almost certainly drive a greater focus on project efficiency and effectiveness. For organisations now encountering such challenges, the project sponsorship model has obvious benefits and needs championing.

Biography

Ian Lang is Strategy and Capital Investment Director at Edinburgh Airport. Since joining Edinburgh Airport in June 2013, Lang has led the delivery of the airport’s capital investment portfolio. In these seven years he has led a significant restructure of the delivery team, embedding project management capabilities in house in order to enable a business led investment programme that supports growth. Lang also has functional responsibility for the airport’s long-term strategic development alongside master planning and the capital investment plan, and an enterprise-wide responsibility for corporate strategy.

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