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3 Steps to Improve IT Modernization Projects: The Importance of Executive Sponsorship


Digital transformation and IT modernization projects in governments often face challenges due to organizational resistance to change, and effective project management requires selecting the right executive sponsor, aligning the organization and understanding effective executive sponsorship. Successful executive sponsors build relationships, embrace accountability and establish trust to ensure project success.

Digital transformation and IT modernization projects are crucial efforts that help governments meet their mission to serve constituents. But too often, these projects fail to deliver on time and on budget.

Technology itself isn’t usually to blame. Rather, these efforts stumble because of organizational resistance to change. User adoption is a challenge: Employees are comfortable in their roles, and they don’t want new technologies and processes disrupting the status quo.

To overcome this resistance, leaders must learn how to deploy technologies effectively within their organizations. As Teri Takai, senior vice president of the Center for Digital Government*, says, “With the right leadership structure and strategies, these state and local government transformations can happen. And they bring tremendous success — not only from the standpoint of the technology, but in terms of the way the business is run.”

Effective project management relies on three key steps:

Step 1: Select an executive sponsor

A crucial first step for organizations is to determine the executive sponsor for each new initiative. Often a senior leader on the business or program side, the executive sponsor is the face of the project and is accountable for enacting the desired change in the organization.

Executive sponsors should be selected because of their passion to achieve the business result the technology will enable, their authority to propel the project through potential roadblocks and their influence to obtain buy-in from cross-functional teams.

The executive sponsor doesn’t tackle the project single-handedly. They typically select a project director to act as the day-to-day leader throughout the project life cycle. Together, these two leaders should evolve their approach over the course of the project, says David Morris, founder and CEO of HiPER Solutions, an advisory subscription service for executive sponsors looking to de-risk transformations.

“Change involves the executive sponsor and the project director — the dynamic duo — to be growing and learning along the way as well,” Morris says.

Step 2: Align the organization

Once an executive sponsor has been selected, that person must enact “project readiness,” or upstream change management that occurs at the very beginning of the project. From the outset, project directors should define goals in detail, as well as benchmarks and metrics for implementation.

“If you can double down on the alignment up front, the projects can happen a lot faster with fewer moving pieces,” says Morris.

Executive sponsors must ensure all parties — internal and external — are in lock-step agreement on goals and success measures. These parties include:

Stakeholders — Most digital transformation projects affect employees in various departments and levels. Stakeholders whose duties will be altered by the new technology should have a seat at the table from the earliest stages. Establishing buy-in from these parties early fosters more open and valuable feedback throughout the process.

Customers — “Walk a mile in your customer’s shoes,” says California CIO Liana Bailey-Crimmins. Executive sponsors should observe how users interact with new technology in the field. “When I went out and saw how someone was actually utilizing the technology, both during and after the project, it opened my eyes,” says Bailey-Crimmins. This customer observation strategy often reveals issues the team would never have otherwise caught.

Teammates — Uneven leadership and unclear task delegation sows confusion on a project team. Each team — and each person on a team — should know exactly which portion of the project they own, what their goal is and how they can achieve success. When inevitable pivots are necessary, the sponsor must communicate the revised plans and goals. Everyone has a role, and those roles can differ throughout the project’s life cycle.

Vendors — Systems integrators and other vendors are important for modernization projects. They often have domain expertise few internal teams can replicate. Though they start to feel like part of the extended team, they can’t drive a project from start to finish without the leadership of the dynamic duo, the executive sponsor and project director. They don’t have the requisite organization knowledge or relationships. But when aligned with the internal vision for the project, they can be a terrific strategic partner throughout the project and then aid in knowledge transfer and smooth post-project transition.

Step 3: Understand effective executive sponsorship

While there are many different leadership styles an executive sponsor can utilize, effective sponsors often share three characteristics.

First, relationship building with multiple constituencies is essential. Executive sponsors will always have blind spots, especially when an initiative touches multiple departments. Blind spots are ultimately the biggest risk to the project’s success. Fostering strong relationships with all stakeholders will create an environment where stakeholders will proactively approach the leader and identify issues before they grow into substantial problems.

Successful executive sponsors also welcome accountability and adopt an owner’s mindset about the project. They realize they are accountable for gathering support across all levels of the organization, delegating tasks to the most qualified employees and seeing the project through to completion. If adjustments need to be made or a problem arises, they take ownership to keep the project on track.

Finally, establishing trust requires sponsors to achieve buy-in across all facets of the organization. To accomplish this, empowering leaders at all levels is essential. Many leaders must emerge to create on-time, on-budget projects — and they will rise to the occasion when they know the executive sponsor is working for their best interest.


Executive sponsors in IT modernization projects have a difficult role, but they should know it comes with significant rewards in both individual growth and company success.

Bailey-Crimmins’ advice to leaders is simple: “You have to put other people’s needs before yourself. And you have to listen.”

Morris adds, “With a growth mindset, you have very high odds of success.”

*The Center for Digital Government and Governing are both divisions of e.Republic.
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