Scenario: An agency Secretary calls the Chief Information Officer into her office, looks him in the eyes and says, “If this project fails, you’re fired.” 

While this may sound like the beginning of a bad joke (or horrible nightmare), the punchline is all too common. We’ve all read the headlines, heard the horror stories, or been a part of the drama that comes with large IT projects.

A 2017 report from the Project Management Institute (PMI), found 14 percent of IT projects fail. However, that number represents only the total failures. Of the projects that didn’t fail outright, 31 percent didn’t meet their goals, 43 percent exceeded their initial budgets, and 49 percent were late. 

According to the Brookings Institute, the U.S. government spent $75.6 billion on IT projects in 2014. And yet from 2003 to 2012, only 6.4 percent of federal IT projects with $10 million or more in labor costs were successful. Sadly, there’s no indication that there has been significant change in these statistics, or that the metrics differ greatly at the State and Local level.

There’s not (yet) a “one-size-fits-all” solution to achieve IT project success. So, what do you do when you are the CIO, sitting across from the Secretary, your job on the line, with the odds working against you?  

You ask yourself one question: Who is my Executive Sponsor and how committed are they? 

What exactly is an Executive Sponsor? 

The Executive Sponsor of an IT Project has ultimate accountability for the failure or success of the project. They must secure the funding, set the vision, align stakeholders, navigate any politics, and provide air cover for their project leads to get the job done. In reality, The Executive Sponsor is the project salesperson: they are selling to all facets of the organization.

After examining hundreds of projects with varying degrees of success it is clear: The selection, commitment, and effectiveness of the Executive Sponsor will make or break a project from day one. If you do not take the appropriate steps to make sure you and your Executive Sponsor are on the same page, the personal, professional and organizational costs of misunderstanding will be gargantuan.

So how do you determine commitment and alignment with your Executive Sponsor? - Look to past behaviors. 

What are the characteristics to look for in an exemplar Executive Sponsor?

  1. Personal accountability – Have you heard them say “I made a mistake?” or “I made that decision and am willing to deal with the consequences?” When the big decisions inevitably roll up to them, you want an Executive Sponsor who has the courage to make the decision, and then push themselves and the organization to live with that decision to move the project forward.
  2. Ownership – Executive Sponsors may fear technology projects will reveal something they don’t understand. Here’s a secret: if the Executive Sponsor doesn’t understand, odds are the rest of the organization won’t understand. If the rest of the organization doesn’t understand, you will likely face less than stellar user adoption, which no amount of change management posters can help. It’s the technology leads role to help the Executive Sponsor understand the framework so that it is crystal clear in their mind. So clear that they love explaining it to other people. This level of true ownership empowers the rest of the team, because the team trusts that they are not going to be hung out to dry. 
  3. Curiosity – Look at past behavior such as a history of asking tough questions, genuine interest in past programs, and digging to understand the core problem statement as indicators of being curious. Curiosity checks assumptions and will help uncover risky blind spots sooner rather than later. 
  4. Politically Smart – A lot of leaders got to where they are by not annoying the right people. Being a yes person or flying below the radar should not be confused with political acumen. The ability to proactively engage someone, understand what uniquely matters to them, frame a message in a way that captivates their audience, and build up a balance in the relationship trust bank is what you want.
  5. Fiscally Strong – There is a reason 43 percent of IT projects exceeded their initial budgets. Setting clear budget parameters up front, experience bringing contract negotiations over the finish line, and strong financial foresight are hugely advantageous in an Executive Sponsor.      

What responsibilities should the Executive Sponsor own?

While this may seem obvious, more often than not, clients realize a few months in that the Executive Sponsor isn’t clear on their role and ultimate responsibilities to the project. How many times have you heard, “my responsibility is to hire smart people, and then get out of their way”?

If this is the message you are getting, stop what you are doing. Let your Executive Sponsor know the following is what you need from them to be successful:

  • Point to real examples where the project links to the organization’s overall strategy.
  • Declare the “Super Bowl” win for the project.
  • Champion the project at ALL levels of the organization.
  • Secure project resources.   
  • Be the final decision point when the overall organization will be impacted – no decision by committee.
  • Ask dumb questions such as, “Did you think of X?” or “Why aren’t we doing Y?”
  • Provide air cover to the Project Director.

At the end of the day, the Executive Sponsor is the Translator in Chief. They must take the business requirements set forth by Management/Legislature/Governor, understand them within the context of business strategy, then translate into the project’s scope and Super Bowl win.

Whether an IT project succeeds or fails, it’s not usually the Executive Sponsor’s butt on the line. The “I hire smart people and then get out of their way” mentality won’t cut it. The role is much more dynamic. Getting the commitment upfront that the Executive Sponsor will clear the way is key. By doing this, their smart people can do their job. Reinforcing the purpose in the context of the overall business, gaining buy-in from all stakeholders, along with frequent and consistent communication with their project lead and team is EVERYTHING if we want to turn around the percentage of truly successful projects.


Teri Takai is Co-Director of the Center for Digital Government and former CIO for the State of Michigan, the State of California, and the U.S. Department of Defense.

HiPER Solutions Group is an advisory company that helps ensure the success of high-stakes programs by assessing people dynamics and providing a data-proven playbook to address the people puzzle, so you can reduce the risk of surprise costs, failed programs, and wasted time.

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