Senior responsible officers and project sponsors

Someone asked me the other day how many projects a Senior Responsible Officer (SRO) could realistically be responsible for.  He’d been looking at a list that showed a small number of people being repeatedly named as the SRO for a large number of projects.  One person being SRO for 6 projects, and this on top of their normal ‘day’ job.

An SRO is a peculiarly UK public sector role, first recommended for IT enabled projects in the McCartney Report in 2000.  Current Guidance on SROs published in July 2019 states that:

Strong leadership with clear accountability are key elements of successful project delivery. The requirement to appoint a senior responsible owner (SRO) for a programme or project has been established in government for over two decades, and is now mandated in the government functional standard for project delivery. 

The fact that the role is now mandated demonstrates its (potential) value.   In the private sector the term ‘senior responsible officer’ is not used, but all the private sector projects I’ve worked on have a ‘sponsor’.   Comparing the role of the SRO and the more familiar, to me, role of the sponsor, I found that they are pretty much identical.

The SRO ‘is ultimately accountable for a programme or project meeting its objectives, delivering the projected outcomes and realising the required benefits. He or she is the owner of the business case and accountable for all aspects of governance.

The sponsor ‘is accountable for ensuring that the work is governed effectively and delivers the objectives that meet identified needs. … As owner of the business case, the project sponsor is responsible for overseeing the delivery of the benefits. So, the sponsorship role covers the whole project life cycle.’

Assuming that the roles are the same, is there anything that can be learned around either SRO or sponsor capability and capacity to take accountability for projects that could be usefully applied, irrespective of role title?  As there’s far more written about SROs than sponsors I’ve stuck with SROs but the info is equally applicable to sponsors.

I found the Office of Government Commerce 2009, Bulletin 5, Lessons Learned: The SRO Role in Major Government Programmes.  It  highlights ways in which to make the SRO role more effective, saying:  ‘In summary, the SRO role can be made to work more effectively by addressing a number of factors, including:

  • Better understanding of the role
  • Selection of the right people to act as SROs
  • Giving SROs real accountability and business authority to resolve issues
  • Ensuring SROs have relevant delivery skills and experience, including commercial awareness
  • SROs dedicating sufficient time to the role
  • Improved continuity of the role through the project life-cycle
  • Improved tools, guidance and development opportunities for SROs
  • Provision of adequate supporting resources.’

Ten years on, this list seems, in my experience, to be just as relevant today and also applicable to project sponsors.   The list also helps answer my questioner who has recognised an issue with SROs having too little time to dedicate to the role, and lack of selection of SROs against specific criteria for the projects they are now being held accountable for.

The document The Role of the SRO, published in July 2019 gives a comprehensive picture of what is expected from an SRO and the relationships of this role to others in a project/programme.  It also discusses the time required to do the role and the skills needed.

In a similar, but chattier, vein the booklet (44 pages) The Art of Brilliance – written by SROs for SROs charts the five challenges SROs face and how to overcome them.  The burble tells us that the book ‘unpacks the behavioural characteristics of highly successful leaders of transformation to help move your professional performance from ‘good to great’.’  It is really worth reading, with each of the 6 chapters structured similarly:

  • The typical challenge facing SROs drawn from the breadth of behavioural insights drawn out from the research to support SROs in addressing the challenge.
  • Research based techniques that provide practical advice for SROs throughout the course of their work.
  • Case studies from other SROs and the private sector
  • Red flags that each SRO should watch out for in the delivery of the programme.
  • Nudges to encourage the SRO to focus on really critical issues.

Sponsors, in any sector, would learn from this book that one SRO described as a ‘pocket sized coach’.

What all the various info on SROs does is emphasise that being an SRO (or sponsor) is not an add on to a ‘day job’.  It is a demanding role that requires special skills and a project/programme delivery focus. Axelos provides a description. ‘An SRO must be someone who can:

  • broker and build strong relationships with stakeholders within and outside the programme/project environment and network effectively within the broader organization and beyond.
  • deploy delegated authority to ensure that the programme/project achieves its agreed objectives with appropriate oversight, dependent on the size, risk, complexity of the programme/project environment and capability.
  • provide ad hoc direction and guidance to the programme/project manager and team as required.
  • acknowledge their own skill/knowledge gaps, seek appropriate guidance and structure the programme/project board and programme/project management teams accordingly; ensuring the right people, with the right skills, with the right capabilities and personalities appropriate for the organizational culture are available when required.
  • give the time required to perform the role effectively but also the support and guidance to build the right capability in the programme/project team to enable an effective [project] organizational structure.
  • negotiate well and influence people, particularly important skills that enable SROs to lead with authority.
  • be aware of the organizational strategies and direction and how it affects the programme/project and if necessary, make informed decisions in terms of readiness for the next phase/stage. Noting success is not only defined as the delivery of a customer desired tangible product or service within time, cost and quality parameters but also prematurely closing a programme/project that is no longer aligned to strategic intent or likely to deliver the financial and quantifiable benefits to the user knowing that the investment saved can be better spent elsewhere to deliver strategic intent.
  • be honest and transparent about a programme/project progress. This is someone who not only scrutinizes progress report information but also holds the programme/project manager to account. The SRO role exists not only to receive information but to enable checks and balances to occur by being proactive and to probe evidence by asking questions. This is important irrespective of the value of the programme/project. SROs need to continually understand why resources (people, funds, assets, materials and services) are being invested and what the desired outcomes are.

I don’t know if there is any certification or reputable training programmes for would be (or current) SROs/sponsors, none appear when googling, but if there were, I think participants would quickly learn that they can’t be responsible for multiple projects, and that being responsible takes time and skill.

What’s your view of the SRO/sponsor role?  Let me know.

Image: From The Art Of Brilliance