Who Decides?

Feb 01 2013

Three often-confused roles at any project’s core: the project’s sponsor, manager, and visionary. Here’s a diagram showing them all connected, like a molecule (borrowed from my new book, Project Management for Musicians).

PM Triangle

The actual titles for the people performing these roles varies. The sponsor might be called a record label executive, publisher, or client. The project manager might be called a producer, tour manager, recording engineer, or agent. The visionary could be an artist, company founder, teacher, or author. And these roles might be fulfilled by three different people, by just one or two, or even a lot more people involved—most commonly, in the case of a board serving as sponsor or a band serving as the visionary.

However the roles are staffed, the three roles are present. Understanding how they relate can help alleviate some tensions and make sure that the essential functions are covered.

Let’s take a look at what each role’s responsibilities.

The project sponsor is the person who decides whether or not the project should exist. He or she is its chief advocate and controls its funding. This person might be on staff or might be a client. Say, for example, that you are a producer, and for your current project, the parents of a teen-aged singer/songwriter hire you to produce their daughter’s album. The parents are the project’s sponsors; they can turn the money faucet on and off. The producer is the project manager, who coordinates all the logistics involved in making the vision real, given the resources that the sponsor’s funding makes available. The singer/songwriter daughter is the visionary—the person who imagines the project’s content (guided by the producer, to one degree or another).

This means that ultimately, the parents are in control, in this case. The project belongs to them, and they are ultimately the “deciders.” If the daughter starts failing math, they could decide to halt work on her recording until her grades improve. If the daughter tells you, the project manager, that what her parents say doesn’t matter and that you must proceed with booking the studio, you have to clarify that it’s her parents’ call, not hers, and certainly not yours.  Remember the golden rule: Whoever has the gold makes the rules!

Let’s look at a more corporate model. Imagine a television studio. The board of directors meet with the CEO and together, they decide to send down a mandate to a senior executive vice president that they need a hit show. The VP sets a market research team in motion, and they determine that a viable concept could be a reality show about the adventures of a guitar technician. (It could happen….) So, the vice president tells an A&R/producer guy on his team to find a suitable guitar technician for this role, who will serve as both the on-screen talent and the show’s creative director. Auditions are held, and a charismatic and visionary surfer-dude guitar tech gets hired.

Here, the vice president is in the role of project sponsor, though the project’s funding is ultimately at the mercy of the board of directors. But it’s easier for one person to serve in this role, so he’s nominally and effectively the sponsor. The A&R/producer guy is the project manager, and the guitar tech/surfer dude is the visionary.  The show will get funded only for as long as the “people upstairs” want it to continue. The guitar tech might now be the star of the show, and his specific pixie dust may make or break the show’s viability, but there’s a limit to his actual decision-making authority. If it turns out that he likes to tune guitars in the nude, that will only fly onscreen if the sponsor ultimately agrees to try it. Similarly, if the guitar tech tries to insist that live concert footage must be included with every show no matter what the cost, it’s not his call to make. It might be a captivating idea, but it’s not necessarily possible, given the available resources; figuring that out is the project manager/A&R/producer guy’s role. So, there’s a limit to how much of the vision is possible to implement, and deciding how the money gets spent is not the surfer dude’s gig. Temper tantrum off, please. If the dude wants more control, he can fund a project himself, rather than collaborating with a studio. These days, many artists are opting to do just that, and so they need to replace what’s missing in the triangle: the project’s sponsorship and its management. Which are each, a whole lot of work.

Again, for the TV show, the A&R guy/producer is in the role of project manager, taking care of logistics, managing resources (i.e., people’s time, gear, and budget),  and keeping the trains running on time. Sure, he might be a seasoned pro, and perhaps even the person best able to determine what will actually make for good television, market research be damned. He could well consider this show his personal masterpiece. But in the end, he is an advisor, rather than the ultimate decision maker, at least for the most significant issues. For in the big picture perspective, the purpose in this case is to get a hit show for the studio, rather than to depict the actual world of this guitar tech.

In the end, the sponsor decides. It is human nature to feel a sense of ownership of the work that we get hired to do, but the project only actually belongs to whoever is funding it. (Muddying the waters is who owns the copyright, but that’s kind of a separate issue. I’m glad you thought of it, though.) So, clarifying this chain of decision-making authority is really important to a project’s success.

Success is not necessarily determined by how great a project is artistically or even how financially viable it is. It is determined by the project sponsor’s opinion regarding whether or not they got what they paid for. Likely, artistic quality and financial viability will be among the sponsor’s criteria for success, but you never know. In the singer/songwriter example, the project’s ultimate purpose could well be to motivate the daughter to do better in math. For the TV studio, it might simply be whether it gets an Emmy or not. The sponsor’s metrics are the only ones that truly matter, from a purely project-management perspective. Hopefully, these metrics get articulated and communicated to everyone who needs to know, so that they can all be working towards the same result.

In any case, ideally, the people who are brought aboard to create the project are aligned philosophically with the sponsor’s over-arching goals, beyond the objectives of the single project. This is why hiring for values alignment is so important. It makes some of the necessary decisions—such as changing a project’s artistic direction, extending the timeline, or even terminating the project entirely—a lot easier for everyone to take, if they understand why the project is being funded.

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