Project sponsors, have you ever been an avoidant Ostrich? Would you like some engagement strategies?
Project professionals, have you worked with an avoidant Ostrich sponsor? Would you like some strategies to work with them more effectively?
The archetypal image of an ostrich is it burying its head in the sand at any sign of trouble. The Ostrich sponsor’s signature behaviour is avoidance. A project professional might find it easier to get an audience with the Queen than with this type of sponsor.
Some of the sponsors I have worked with are self-confessed Ostriches. Common Ostrich traits include avoidance of decision-making and absence from essential project meetings and project work. Ostriches are excellent at making excuses about why they can’t attend to the project. They will say, ‘I’m too busy’ or ‘I have other more important work’. That might be true, but the project still needs a sponsor to drive the outcomes.
Here are some insights from my research with avoidant Ostrich sponsors and their advice on how to turn them into courageous sponsors:
Ostrich challenge #1: Absence of advocacy, i.e. championing the project. They may have no interest in the project or are out of their depth. They don’t want to admit it or ask for help. One sponsor – whose speciality was product sales – was asked to sponsor a legal and compliance project. He shuddered, and headed for the hills!
Ostrich antidote #1: Sponsors, think about how you feel about the project and in what ways it helps the organisation and customers. Allow yourself to be interviewed by your project lead. This exercise helped a former Ostrich increase his connection to the project. He wrote the answers from the interview into his project Business Case and brought it out every time someone asked him about the topic of his initiative. Inspiring advocacy!
Ostrich challenge #2: Sponsors have too many competing priorities, and this is low on their list. They perceive that their project meetings last for hours (even if that’s not the case), and this makes them reluctant to spend any time for fear of getting sucked in. Their absence causes your project team a problem when there are executive decisions to be made.
Ostrich antidote #2: Sponsors, ask your project leads to make every meeting valuable, with a clear purpose. One project manager I’ve worked with won over an Ostrich sponsor in less than six weeks. She started with short 15 to 30-minute meetings and stuck to the allotted time. She ensured every session had a clear purpose, talking points and an explicit request for any decisions that the sponsor needed to make. She used plain English, including everyday metaphors to gradually educate her Ostrich sponsor. One phrase she used to describe the high-risk situation was “we need to make time for this now to make sure there is no “blood on the carpet”. Her sponsor knew that unnecessary pain would follow if he did not attend to the “blood on the carpet” risks, so he found his courageous Eagle, got hands-on with problem-solving where necessary and became a timely decision-maker.
And the team starting gaining momentum. And the project delivered.
Both of these antidotes provide help without the sponsor needing to ask for it. This help then builds trust and contributes to a more robust project manager/ sponsor relationship and improved project results.
Here’s to more courageous sponsors in the world – our curious Ducks, effective Eagles and wise Owls.