Like all U.S. presidents, Andrew Jackson had an official cabinet, confirmed by the Senate, in charge of the various government departments. However, Jackson tended to ignore the official cabinet members in favor of an informal group of advisors dubbed the “kitchen cabinet.” Since then, many U.S. presidents have relied more on an informal and unconfirmed list of advisors for counsel and help in making decisions, than on the official cabinet secretaries. Titles can be misleading. Lobbyists soon learn that cozying up to the unofficial in-crowd is often more fruitful than courting official dignitaries. 

Corporations can be similarly led. Sometimes the power rests within the chain of command. In other organizations, the CEO might rely on an unofficial team of employees of various titles and positions, perhaps not even in the chain of command. It is these insiders who make or influence corporate decisions. 

What does this have to do with IT and project management? Well, put your project planning books aside. The critical decisions about your project might have been made months ago, before you were even assigned to the project, and kept private by a group of people you don’t know, sitting around a table in some unnamed conference room you never heard of, who know little to nothing about IT. 

If you are a project manager, even the best project manager in the world, it is unlikely you will be sitting with that group anytime soon. Even the CIO might be a stranger to that assemblage. 

If your project is building an application to manage IT’s bowling scores, then you can skip this article. Even the project manager of a more corporate relevant though small and not revenue significant project might be able to breeze though the following pages. However, if your project is mission critical, meaning that it plays a major role in the success of your organization, then read on, because, know it or not, your project needs senior representation.

Projects are like wolves, they are useful, but they also have people gunning for them. For whatever reasons, someone, somewhere, will be out to get your project. He might think it’s a waste of money; poorly led, planned, or executed; not needed by the business; or better alternatives are available. Whatever the rationale, he will do all he can to bring your project to a halt. Project naysayers are not evil people, just convinced that a mistake is being made and that they have a responsibility to point it out if not correct it. 

If the naysayer is a junior member of the organization, then there is probably no problem; however, if the project critic is a senior executive, then beware. Somewhere, around some bend or detour you have to take, the critic waits ready to spring on any perceived misstep or error. 

When will the ambush occur? Well, there are a few fairly predictable points.

First Sign of Weakness. Drop the ball, or even bobble it, and you are in trouble. A slipped schedule, budget issues, a vendor not able to deliver what or when resources were promised, or staffing problems are all reasons the viability of the project could be questioned. 

Wrong Place, Wrong Time. When a project kicks off, there is considerable enthusiasm and energy aimed at the undertaking. The project team is charged, users are thinking of how things will be when the systems is in, and managers everywhere are looking to bask in the credit they will take, deserved or not. But enthusiasm will wane. It doesn’t matter that the plan says that the project will not show tangible user results for 8 months, or that the users were told, time and again, that there is a deliverable desert between months one and seven. Sometime, after 3 or 4 months, with nothing end-user oriented to show for all the work besides bills, even the most ardent supporters experience the mid-project blues and start to second-guess their decision. Now add in the naysayers whispering “I told you so” in their ears, and even the strongest supporters start “re-thinking the project.”

There are two ways to avoid the mid-project blues. First, keep the drought short. Try to have some user-focused deliverables that will keep the users happy as soon and as often as possible. Never go more than 6 months before some functionality is installed, and never more than 3 months without some kind of demo. (See “Squandering the Honeymoon Period,” SD Times online, April 13, 2020.)

Second, get a project champion. A project champion is a senior executive, usually from the business side of the organization, who has the respect of peers and the ears of the very top echelons. More specifically, the project champion either sits around that decision-making conference room table or routinely works with those who do. He or she knows what that body is thinking or can influence what they do. Moreover, this senior executive, who truly believes in the system and the benefits it will deliver to the company, is willing to forcefully campaign for the project. 

A good project champion will keep the true believers believing and the naysayers quiet, giving the project team the time it needs/deserves to build the application and deliver the goods. Project champions are worth their weight in gold.

A good project champion can support a project in at least four ways.

Represent the project at the highest corporate levels. As a member of the inner circle, the champion can either advocate for the project (budget, schedules, resources, etc.) at executive decision-making meetings or sometimes make the decisions unilaterally.

Can commit corporate resources. The champion can directly make or, as an executive conduit, influence organizational binding resource decisions. 

Keep the firm focused on the endgame. If the champion is sufficiently senior in the organization, then he or she can cut through corporate red tape, thwart naysayer interference, and clear organizational obstacles.

Clear the decks for the project. The champion is not a member of the project team but rather an important resource to allow the team to do its job. Like a snowplow on a train, the champion clears the way for those who follow behind.

Both Six Sigma (a set of process improvement techniques and rules) and the Project Management Institute (PMI) recognize the role and recommend that projects have a project champion. 

However, even the best project champions need the help of a project manager. A smart project manager will become quite familiar with the project champion and solicit his or her advice in dealing with, and presenting to, senior management. The champion can then float ideas with senior executives, identifying and clearing potential objections and obstacles, before the project team recommends them.

Do Not Confuse a Project Champion with a Mentor

Every project manager should have one or more mentors (official or unofficial) who can help them navigate corporate waters. Mentors provide staff with advice and insight regarding their corporate careers, focusing on individual performance and success. Mentors can help an employee with development and training choices, positioning for promotions, interacting with other staff, and more.

A Mentor Advises a Person; a Champion Advises a Project

Mentor. A mentor is a senior and respected expert in one or more areas of the organization. He or she is knowledgeable, not just in the official procedures and processes of the organization, but also in the culture and unofficial—unwritten—rules of corporate engagement.

There should be no line responsibility between mentor and mentee. Rather the relationship is informal and advisory. The objective is not to have a buddy, but rather someone who can advise the mentee on when he or she is doing something right or when they are on the wrong track. Mentors are not a cheerleading squad—call mom if constant encouragement is needed—they are there to listen to mentee questions and provide factual and practical advice. They are not there to intervene with the mentee’s managers to “fix things.” A good mentor will resist talking to the mentee’s boss, if at all possible, to avoid interfering in the employee-manager relationship or second guessing management decisions.

Everyone in an organization should have a mentor. Some organization’s assign an official mentor; others allow employees to pick their own. Even if there are official mentors, everyone should also have one or more unofficial mentors.

Champion. The project champion is a senior member of the organization who takes a personal interest in the project. He or she regularly attends or is at least a guest at the highest level corporate governance meetings. The champion works closely with the senior executives in the organization (and is often their peer) and can represent and advocate for the project with senior executives. The champion often has the power to influence, if not modify, budgets and project plans, and commit organizational resources. The champion can speak for the organization at project meetings and reviews.

The champion is an excellent audience for the project manager to practice meetings and presentations with senior users and project oversight groups. The champion can recommend strategies and tactics to improve communication and the likelihood of favorable outcomes.

Finding a Project Champion

Finding a project champion can be a challenging task. Luckily, a champion might have existed before the project even kicked off, and have played an instrumental role in its creation. However, some champions decide to take a back seat once the project is underway. This is unfortunate since the champion is often needed more after project kickoff than before. Job one for the project manager is keeping the project champion engaged during the entire project. Explain to a reticent champion the tasks and the challenges facing the project. This needs to be one of the project managers best performances. 

If there was no pre-project champion, then the project manager’s options are limited. With the support of the IT organization, meet with likely candidates and convince them to take on the task. The project manager should learn all he or she can about those high level pre-project meetings. Who spoke up for the project and its budget? Who opposed it? Meet with the candidates and ask for their help. With some luck you might be pleasantly surprised.

Project Champion: A Resource, Not a Friend

Every project manager needs to remember that the project champion represents the organization and the project and not the project manager. For example, a champion might decide that the current project manager is the wrong person to lead the project and needs to be replaced. Both the champion and the project manager need to jointly understand the champion’s goals and responsibilities and the potential consequences of both.