When it opened early in 2000, the London Eye was the tallest observation wheel in the world, and has since become as much a symbol of London as St Paul’s Cathedral. It was the brainchild of two London architects, David Marks and Julia Barfield, in 1995. Failing to get big organisations interested, they decided to promote the project on their own. They could only get so far that way, and they persuaded Bob Ayling, a friend and chief executive of British Airways, to back get his company to back the scheme. He became the sponsor, in effect the customer for the project. How would his involvement make the difference between the millennium wheel being a folly that never got built, and it being one of the most popular tourist attractions in Britain?
Every project needs a sponsor. They have three roles. First they are the customer for the project itself. They have to approve the business case and ultimately judge whether the progress of the project and the output are acceptable. Next they represent the organisation to the project. For a large project the sponsor is likely to be a member of the senior management and they must ensure the project acts in the organisation’s interests. Last they represent the project to the organisation, who should regard it as the sponsor’s project, not something the sponsor just keeps an eye on. Their principal responsibilities are shown below.
The sponsor will be a member of the project board. This board (which might also be called a project steering committee or something similar) has the job of overseeing the project to check that it is on course and the sponsor and the project manager are performing satisfactorily.
The sponsor may be the originator of the project, they may be appointed, or they may be invited them to take on the role. They need to have sufficient stature in the organisation to be able to defend the interests of the project properly. They must have a passion for the project and be an enthusiastic advocate and defender of it.
They must also develop a strong, mutually supportive relationship with the project manager. For example, if an issue arises which the project manager cannot resolve the sponsor must get involved and use their power and influence to sort things out. At the limit the sponsor may decide that the business case no longer holds up and recommends to the project board that the project is abandoned.
The absence of a sponsor, or having a weak and ineffectual sponsor, can place a project in peril and lead to a sub-optimal output and a failure to produce the desired benefits, or even contribute to the project’s collapse.
Rose, S. (2007). Eye – the story behind the London Eye. London: Black Bog.
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