How to Talk to The Project Sponsor When Resources and Time Constraints are Unrealistic

By Karen A. Brown and Nancy Lea Hyer

Has this happened to you? A new project assignment comes your way, courtesy of a high-ranking executive. Let’s say it’s for a product recall effort that is to be completed within six months at a cost that cannot exceed $50,000. You and your team develop a project plan, but when all of the details are fleshed out, you discover the project will require more money, a bigger team, and more time than the sponsor has specified. The situation could be explained graphically this way:

This is no time to be a shrinking violet with the boss. Nor is it time to desperately beg for more resources without further analysis and conversation. Consider this: the mismatch between your estimates and those specified by the boss could be for one or more of these reasons:

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1. You might have been imagining a larger scope than the sponsor had envisioned.

2. Perhaps you have not made full use of what you know about scheduling to move activities along float lines or “crash” critical activities by re-allocating resources. (We explain how to do this in Chapter 8 of Managing Projects: A Team-Based Approach.)

3. The sponsor might have intended the deadline and budget as general guidelines and is waiting to hear from you.

4. The sponsor hadn’t really given it much thought but believed these numbers looked pretty good.

5. There is a business reason these top down “stretch” objectives, even though they do not reflect the practical realities of executing the work.

6. The sponsor is cruel person out to destroy you.

OK, OK, the last one is unlikely, so stop thinking this is the case. Don’t be a victim. Schedule a meeting and do your homework. The topic of the meeting should be “To Review the Project Plan and Obtain Sponsor’s Input,” and NOT “To Discuss the Woefully Limited Budget and Deadline, Neither One of Which We Can Possibly Meet.” Bring easy-to-understand graphics like the ones shown above and boil down facts to the essentials.

Here’s how you might begin:
“My team and I are enthused about the recall project, and we all appreciate how important it is to our company’s reputation.” [Boss responds favorably.] “We’ve worked out a project plan and I’d like to share it with you. But, unless you want detail, I’ll keep it at an executive level.” [Boss responds favorably.] This is where you can present a broad-view WBS like the one shown below in mind map form:

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Your initial objective is to determine if this is what the boss had in mind. If she tells you some parts of it were not considered in scope for you and your team, you can say “Wow, that explains it. We were worried about being able to meet your constraints. Mind if I go back to the team with this and we meet in a couple of days?” This gives you time to re-estimate the budget and save face with the boss.

Or, perhaps you can lay out graphics like the ones shown at the top-end of this blog posting and dig into a fruitful discussion. Graphics really help to tell the story. You are not in the meeting to beg for resources, you are there to solicit the boss’s aid in solving a problem. Here are a few questions you and the sponsor might discuss:

  • Do we have the scope right?
  • What could we eliminate from the WBS?
  • Is the deadline fixed?
  • What are your suggestions for reducing cost?
  • Are we making the right assumptions about resource availability?
  • To what extent can we count on functional departments to get work back to us when we need it to stay on schedule?
  • What is the relative priority of cost, schedule, and technical performance for achieving the business goals of this project?

Make the sponsor your partner, not your enemy.