Project briefing – sponsors must do better!

That was the response from participants on a project management workshop.

How did this come about? We have an activity where I give them a brief. By brief I mean some background information about a project. This led to a an interesting debate with a substantial proportion voicing concerns that the briefings they had from senior mangers were vague and did not help them very much.

This reminded me of a client we had some years ago. They requested we design a briefing exercise to help senior managers develop skills in this area. We broke the project management course into 3 groups with 3 people being briefed.

The most telling comment from the 3 people being briefed was that they did not understand the project and felt they had loads of questions they wanted to ask but did not feel the person briefing them wanted to hear them. This, from a peer – someone on or about the same level in the business!

So, what are the lessons for all of us?

1. If you are a project manager you must somehow find a way to ask questions or get answers to questions about the project. The method(s) you will need to use will vary depending on who the senior manager is alongside where they are geographically and in the company hierarchy

2. If you are a sponsor you need to create mechanisms to ensure questions can be asked and you can answer them or refer them to people who can. A common complaint on project management training courses is that it is so hard to get questions answered

3. Briefing skills need to improve. Evidence presented to me on our project management courses and with colleagues points to poor skills in this area

4. Project management workshops for senior managers should include activities to develop their briefing skills

5. Time needs to be spent on briefing – self evident from all the information above. If time is not given to briefings then risk levels for the project could will increase

So, project managers, next time you are receiving a briefing that is not quite up to the mark, what will you do? Senior manager; what actions are you going to take to ensure that your briefings are well received. 

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6 Responses to Project briefing – sponsors must do better!

  1. Yes I agree. In my experience project sponsors do not understand clearly how important their input is into the direction and delivery of a project. They also have little idea what impact this has on both the project and project management stakeholders.

    Too many project sponsors also do not spend enough time on project issues and don’t want to realise that should they not provide enough input into the business requirements documentation that later on it is often impossible to change the software requirements specification without a serious impact on budget and time.

    I remember on one specific project, explaining to a sponsor that on a project with a drop dead delivery date and no contingency on budget or resources, spending 2,500 hours impact assessing a change request (yes just the impact assessment) was madness. He disagreed and it wasn’t until the Finance Director actually cut off the budget that he decided to forgo it.

    No you need to get lucky with your project sponsor. Find someone who has the clout to get things done, makes fast smart decisions and will back you when things go wrong, otherwise your project delivery is going to be a tortuous one!


    Susan de Sousa
    Site Editor

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  3. Andy says:

    So true Ron! I think if sponsors understood that for every piece of important information pertinent to the project they leave out of the brief or out of discovery, that equates to many times the amount of effort that is going to go un-budgeted. But project managers can do a lot to mitigate if they know the right questions and are persistent. If project managers are lazy (essentially, passing laziness along from upper management) the buck stops somewhere, and the fallout tends to land squarely in their laps.

  4. Ron says:

    Thanks for the comments Susan and Andy.

    I do not think that you need to get lucky with your project sponsor I think companies need to recognise that the sponsor role demands development and training activities. I also feel project managers need to be more assertive in their behaviour. They are often left to make decision without the full facts and do not assert themselves to ensure they can get these facts

    Andy, you must have read my previous blog post Questioning, one of those project management skills that needs to be well honed – at I completely agree with your sentiments and that you say that project managers must take responsibility otherwise they will finish up taking the fallout! Do you think project managers recognise this?


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  6. Andy says:

    Yes, your article on questions is so relevant. Knowing the right type of question to ask and having excellent skills in that area is vital. But I think often the problem goes even deeper… that the Project Manager and sponsor may not even know what they don’t know about the project (if that makes any sense). A good project manager takes responsibility for these possibilities by having good project intuition. This sort of thing can’t always be taught. A project manager learns it through experience, by working with the idiosyncrasies of the sponsor, and by getting good at formal and informal risk analysis.

    As far as whether project managers recognize that the ultimate success/failure of the project rests on their shoulders, as does any possible fallout, I think they do at the job description level. But too often they find easily accessible excuses when projects go bad. It’s easy to blame the sponsor, insufficient information, scope-creep etc. But a good project manager not only takes ownership, but finds way to mitigate by thorough discovery and excellent risk and change-management.

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