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Without an Executive Sponsor, Your Project Is Just Skunkworks

skunkworksManagement buy-in, in the form of an executive sponsor, is a critical success factor for every software project. An executive sponsor is a business person with the authority to get the project done. According to Wikipedia, “The project sponsor will be a senior executive in a corporation (often at or just below board level) who is responsible to the business for the success of the project.”

Executive sponsors can provide many services to the team such as securing funding, clearing impediments, and managing relationships. Without an executive sponsor, a software development team is left to fend for itself. Competing with other teams for funding, staffing and support becomes much more difficult.

Let me tell you a story from my days at Wang.

When I worked at Wang Laboratories, the word-processing and minicomputer company, I reported to a manager who had great interest in desktop publishing. He convinced his boss to let him hire a senior technical lead and develop a publishing solution integrated with Wang word processing software.

My boss did a great job of seeking out vendors who were interested in partnering with Wang. He was able to cobble together some impressive functionality. But there was a problem. The implementation wasn’t well integrated with other corporate software. It was a stand-alone solution. It also reached a point where significant additional funding and staffing was needed to get it to the next level.

The effort failed. There was never an executive sponsor. The company was willing to let him experiment with his ideas but no senior executive was willing to sponsor his ideas. Without that level of engagement, the effort was unsustainable.

Here’s another story. This time from my days at Kronos.

My manager at Kronos, a timekeeping system vendor, wanted the company to enter the market for financial terminals such as those used by retailers to swipe credit cards. It would have been an entirely new market for Kronos and one that could have taken advantage of many of the skills the company already had.

We built and demonstrated a prototype terminal. We established vendor relationships to help with credit card processing. Then it was time for senior management to buy-in and fund the new business. As you might guess, the effort failed to win support and was scrapped. The lack of an executive sponsor killed the initiative.

Just Skunkworks

Sometimes, skunkworks projects succeed even without someone to champion the effort. It happens when the product or service is overwhelmingly impressive and obviously important to the company. The rest of the time not having an executive sponsor puts software projects at risk of never getting to done. Don’t let it happen to your project.

photo credit: gamppart via photopin cc

Updated: July 30, 2013 — 10:08 pm
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