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“An actively engaged executive champion or sponsor” is the top requirement for organizations that want to meet their business goals, according to the Project Management Institute’s annual Pulse of the Profession global survey. Yet few organizations have a board-level sponsor for either innovation or portfolio delivery functions, let alone one that is responsible for both.

So, what is going wrong? Why are there so few executive sponsors for both Innovation management and project portfolio management?

One reason is that many of today’s PMOs (even those that claim to be ‘enterprise’ PMOs) and innovation teams are based within functional departments such as IT, R&D, or finance. Typically, innovation will sit in one functional area and portfolio delivery in another. Inevitably, the team takes its lead from the management it reports to, and that management direction is likely to be conditioned by narrow department priorities. For the IPMO (Innovation & Portfolio Management Office), this is simply not good enough.

The very purpose of the IPMO is to be the engine for enterprise transformation, and its operational range must not be constrained by a siloed management approach. It is therefore imperative that the IPMO is led and ‘owned’ by a sponsor at the board level, providing enterprise-wide responsibility, and ensuring its work is rooted firmly in the organization’s business strategy. Having a single sponsor with the authority and mandate to accelerate transformation, who has ownership of both the innovation and delivery functions, will mean that innovation and project delivery are both linked to strategy. This ensures that the right ideas are taken forward, that the right priority of projects are delivered and, above all, that benefits are realized, and the success criteria understood.

Above all else, it is human nature for our teams to want a structure and hierarchy - it is engrained into everything we do as a society. If we have a vital team such as an IPMO that doesn’t have a distinct structure or leader then the team simply won’t operate as effectively as it should. Teams look to a leader or focal point to make those tough decisions and to support them. Having a board-level sponsor, a leader and a focal point in place allows the team to unite and, ultimately, perform better.

Identifying the need and appointing a sponsor is all well and good, but just having a named sponsor and leader responsible for the IPMO (or any project) isn’t enough. In fact, appointing that person is just the start.

I have seen so many examples of a leader or sponsor being appointed and that just being the end of it. The issue with a sponsor rather than a full-time employed team lead is that it is a role on top of their current day job. This will lead to distraction and the fateful ‘too busy’ excuse being used. This is pretty dangerous for those organizations that truly want to transform their business and harness the power of the IPMO.

It is my view that a dedicated resource should always be the preferred route taken by an organization, but I completely understand that this isn’t always possible. So, I guess it is a case that something is better than nothing, and the individual appointed needs to fully understand the areas that their role must impact to ensure the IPMO is successful.

These are the four most important areas that IMPO leadership needs to focus on:

Structure

This is both structure in approach and the structure of the team. In terms of approach, the leader needs to be consistent and be the one that keeps ‘banging the drum’. The team will look to the sponsor to provide energy and stability throughout the process. It is also up to the sponsor to ensure the structure of the team is fit for purpose. A lot of this will already be done, but look at the team with a different frame of reference - how diverse are they? Are there any bad eggs that will derail the project? Are there any collective ‘blind spots’ in the team’s knowledge that need to be addressed?

Support

The sponsor needs to be that support system for the team. They need to provide consistent reassurance and provide a listening ear. The IPMO is the department for change within an organization and is not an easy place to be. Any sponsor needs to understand this and ensure they are there for the team members in what can be a frustrating and lonely role.

Direct

Any IPMO leader needs to have the ability to ensure the team stays on track and direct them where they need to be heading. The IPMO team will have their heads into the detail and will often become lost in their journey to help change the organization, so it is incredibly important they have that steady hand to guide them in the right direction.

Inspire

Being responsible for transforming a business, as the IPMO is, can be a lonely place. A place where you are swimming upstream and battling old ways of thinking and those unwilling to change. It can become frustrating. This is why it is so important that any sponsor has the ability to motivate and inspire the team. They will need someone to dig them out of the dark places when things aren’t going well. They will need someone that will help them fight their battles. They will need a leader that inspires them into action.

These attributes just scratch the surface and define any good leader, but it is vital that a sponsor understands the importance of each of these attributes, and those that are selecting a sponsor look for them in their candidates.

It may seem obvious that leadership is required for any important part of a business, but the IPMO tends to suffer. This is largely due to it being a new concept and falling between two existing departments, leading to it either being forgotten about or led by the wrong person.

It is vital, therefore, that organizations understand why leadership is required for the IPMO and how that leadership needs to look and perform.  

Think about the structure, the focal point, and what type of culture and message you are wanting to spread through that department. Then you will have a fighting chance of succeeding.

Find out more

Discover more about achieving successful end-to-end business transformation in our whitepaper - IPMO Sets High Ambitions for Innovation Delivery 

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