Published here May 2008.


Musings Index

Identifying a Client's Project Sponsor

From time to time I receive Emails with questions that do not appear to be answered on my web site. Here is such a question.

Eduardo F. Wrote by Email 9/29/07

Hi Max,

My name is Eduardo and I am a PM and IT Consultant. I am past president (last year) of the Uruguayan PMI chapter and working with projects more or less than 15 years. I'm a usual user of your web site, it's for me like a magical Aladino lamp: If you have some doubt or question go to!

Now to the point (question), the reason I'm writing you (disclaimer - maybe it's somewhere in your web site or books, maybe I missed). Passing the time I'm hitting myself at the same stone over and over again and I'm not sure that I have the right and secure solution.

The question is: If the project has not a clear identified client, do we need to define one or require the definition of one? The type of client I'm speaking about is the one who defines the Acceptance Criteria and the one who starts the project closure by giving the OK to the product, service or result.

Let me explain a little bit, this is most the case for projects inside of the company - examples - A project part of the strategic plan, to improve something - A new product development for future sales at a little company - An educational project to improve company PM knowledge and so on.

Of course the client is there - the CEO or the whole company - (please remember I'm at the south cone of South America and here almost all companies are managed as private held), but nobody realize the needs to work as client.

Two things are coming out of this:
  1. Because too high or too much people nobody is defining the acceptance criteria and of course nobody is checking the deliverable with some rigor. It's more a perceptive kind of approval that happens in an undefined period of time.
  2. It's the project manager's issue to start a political, marketing and public relationship Campaign to take care of his scalp and defend what he, almost on his own, has defined as a good product.
A lot of other issues start with no definition of the master client because it's hard to select and prioritize collected requirements, define quality levels, realize a needed change, etc. It's all lasting on the amount of guts and good and logical functionality of the brain of the PM (and his team).

I think it's a duty of the sponsor to clearly identify and give a unique master client to the PM, maybe it can be a council or a committee of people but with clear and define responsibilities and roles (part of the rules and principles defined in a methodology, or similar, at the initial phase of the project?)

And maybe more, I wonder if the master client is not compatible with the duties of sponsor and PM and because of that it should be one other entity inside of the project responsibility matrix, and always available.

Well I hope you will understand my Spanglish and that you find interest at my questions.

Kind regards,


Dear Eduardo:

Thank you for your email and your question. No, I don't think the answer is anywhere on my web site and it is an interesting question. I understand that you are trying to provide project management services from within your company, but no one seems to want to give you clear direction on what is required. This can be very frustrating and difficult to deal with, especially so, if not everyone is agreed, or the company is not sufficiently familiar with project management to know how to go about it. Or if may be that they are divided over the merits of project management in the first place. Worse yet, it may be they just want someone to hand off work to without taking any responsibility.

We may have some difficulty here with terminology, especially in translation to Spanish, so let's get that out of the way first.

A "client" is defined as "The party to a contract who commissions the work and pays for it on completion." that can be a single person but more likely is the company or organization in general, in other words, the legal entity. That "client" may be internal or external. If internal the concept of "contract" still exists but is not necessarily written in "legal" language and formally signed.

In fact, it may not be written down at all, but just given verbally. That is the worst kind of situation, so the sensible project manager immediately undertakes to write down the instructions and hands them back with the question: "Is this what you mean?" and "Let's go over it to make sure it is really what is wanted." During this exchange other ideas often come up to be included or to clarify the "requirements".

But in any case, when working on the details of a project it is difficult to deal with a vague legal entity. You need a representative in the company who will be responsible for providing answers along with other responsibilities including arranging sign-off upon product delivery and completion.

That person is a (project) "sponsor", defined as "The executive who manages, administers, monitors, funds, and is responsible for the overall project delivery." You can find more details on my web site, specifically, here:

The idea of a project sponsor role is relatively recent, say the last 10 years, so it is not well established, even in PMI. The "sponsor" needs to be a single person. However, sometimes the "sponsor" is a committee, in which case, you want to deal with the chairperson of the committee who becomes the de facto sponsor.

Because the idea of a "sponsor" is relatively new and, more importantly, the sponsor's responsibilities are not well established, you may have to do some diplomatic "educating". You can do this by some approach such as: "This project looks sufficiently important to the company that I would like to work with an official "sponsor" for this project." When they ask: "What is a sponsor, or what do they do, that is your chance to explain exactly what is wanted.

You can explain that this way, the project will go along much better, and the company should be much more satisfied with the result, or, if not then the sponsor can officially terminate the project to save wasting any more time or money on it. If you can manage to establish who is the company's project sponsor, and that person takes their responsibilities seriously, then you have someone you can work with to flesh out the project requirements and establish Key Success Indicators, and so on. If that person does not take their obligations seriously, or claims that they are too busy, then you can escalate the problem to a higher management level.

However, if this is not feasible, or if no one is willing to be your project sponsor with the role you need, then your project is being set up for failure. So, then you have to ask yourself the serious question: "Is this a company that I really want to work for?" If the answer to that question is "No", then obviously you know what to do next.

Having arrived at this conclusion, but before taking the ultimate step, go and talk to the most senior person you can get access to and explain your situation. Quite often they are unaware of the problem and prove quite willing to help.

Hope that helps,

1. See Room for Improvement, A New Report on the State of Project Management at
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