Probing the Enigma of Project Sponsor-Saboteur Dualism
By Professor Jim Johnson
We were recently having a discussion with a colleague about some recent research. Our colleague raised the notion that a project sponsor might also be a project saboteur. Our first reaction was: How can that be possible? A project sponsor is a person who supports the successful resolution of a project; a project saboteur would be someone who tries to kill the project. These two personas are opposites! However, the conversation got us thinking: Is it possible? Under what circumstances would it be possible? How would you know? What would tip you off? Over the past 25 years, our colleagues have looked at and analyzed more than 120,000 projects—and now that we have thought about it further, we can see that it is clearly possible.
Let us consider some of the circumstances that would make it possible. First, the project must be mandated by government, regulatory, and industry standards. Second, the project sponsor must be either forced or reluctant to act as the project sponsor. Third, the project itself might have weak support from the organization’s leadership—which would make it risky, career-wise, for the sponsor to be fully invested. Fourth, the project could affect the organization negatively, even though it might meet regulatory demands.
Being a project sponsor as well as a project saboteur is not a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde situation; the actions are much more subtle than that, and could easily go undetected. Most project saboteur activities involve being absent or holding back. It is, in fact, the lack of activity that makes a project saboteur so powerful, and so hard to detect. The project saboteur will try to delay decisions, create long decision latencies, and work to reverse decisions that have already been made. A project saboteur will often erect barriers to progress, but justify such barriers as the project sponsor claiming they are for the good of the project.
For more information along these lines, please look for The Project Saboteur, by Dion Kotteman and Jeroen Gietema (Claret Press, May 2016). This book will help you to identify the habits and behaviors of potential saboteurs, and offers some tips and methods to minimize the damage they can do. You can get this book on Amazon.
For more information on the skills needed to be a good project sponsor, please go to our store and purchase our book The Good Sponsor as well as “The Good Sponsor Appraisal,” an online appraisal that is self-administered and completely private. You can get our book and the appraisal in our store.
Jim Johnson is a professor at the Antwerp Management School. He is also the founder and chairman of The Standish Group. Johnson has been professionally involved in the computer industry for over 50 years and has a long list of published books, papers, articles and speeches. He is also responsible for a combination of technical, marketing, and research achievements focused on mission-critical applications and technology. Johnson is best known for his research on project performance and the early recognition of technology trends. A pioneer in modern research techniques, he continues to advance the research industry through case-based analytical technology. Currently, Professor Johnson is experimenting with a new teaching technique known as “Nanoclassing.”