Q: I’m a project manager whose executive sponsors continually push back on my project time estimates. They want unrealistically short timelines, and, what’s worse, they promise them to other stakeholders. What do I do?

George, 40, project manager

A: You need active strategies to manage your renegade sponsors.

First of all, you might be pretty angry right now. But acting on that won’t help you, so take steps to cool down in whatever way works for you. Venting to someone can help, but be sure they won’t either tell tales or take your angst on themselves.

With a clear head, think about the reasons this may be occurring.

Your sponsors may have pressures to deliver that you aren’t aware of. Address this by exploring your projects’ place as a contributor to corporate strategy so that you can guide the direction.

If, as it sounds, you have had this problem repeatedly, you may need to develop more skills in setting accurate expectations.

Part of this is bringing good data and plans to bear. Are your assumptions laid out clearly and are they compelling? Get your sponsor to sign off on each assumption you’re making in your plan.

Then it’s logic: If you assume you have this much money, these resources in terms of expertise, and a known desired outcome, here is the time it will take. In some cases, more funding can speed things up. In others, the expertise factor may be the limiter.

You may have to break it down this simply to get your sponsor to see the cause and effect nature of this.

There are also ways to help your sponsor successfully honor commitments they have made through scope management.

Say, for example, you are working on a new product website that your sponsor promised to Sales. There may be 50 features they would like. The promised deliverable could be the 30 that are needed for the site to be usable and to make a positive impression on both Sales and customers. The rest would then come out in ongoing releases.

Then it’s your job to get the sponsor on board by becoming the one who articulates the story of the successful path forward.

Keep in mind that these sponsors may end up looking for someone to blame. Keep your house in order, following good project management processes to manage scope and risks. Be diligent in ensuring that tasks keep moving so that even small bits of time are not lost. You have probably already lost any time cushion you may have built in. And the last thing you want is to see fingers pointed because balls were dropped if it could have been avoided.

As with most things in business, it comes down to communication. Understand what others need, explain how you expect to meet those needs, and make sure they heard what you said (not what they wanted to hear). Then follow through impeccably and do all you can to help your sponsor get their needs met.


What challenges do you face at work? Send your questions to Liz Reyer, leadership coach and president of Reyer Coaching & Consulting in Eagan. She can be reached at liz@deliverchange.com.