Effective sponsorship: Empowering the behaviours for successful infrastructure delivery

By Dominic Gibbeson, Will Nixon

Infrastructure delivery within the UK has been plagued with delivery challenges; from the experience of the Great Western Electrification programme through to more recent examples such as the on-going indecisiveness surrounding High Speed 2. Strong and effective infrastructure sponsorship – the role of setting and maintaining the overall strategic direction – plays a critical role in helping ensure the successful delivery of major infrastructure.

Skilfully guiding programmes from their initial inception through to implementation, sponsors need to make the critical decisions that shape the trajectory, and ultimate success, of these programmes. However, the landscape of infrastructure sponsorship, and the critical role of programme sponsor, are becoming increasingly challenging. In this article we set out some of the key reasons for these challenges, and how organisations can develop a more effective approach to sponsorship.

So why is sponsorship getting increasingly challenging?

The world is an inherently more complex place with major infrastructure schemes now operating in a more uncertain technological and political environment. Specifically, sponsorship is getting increasingly more difficult due to:

  • Technology evolving at an ever-increasing rate: Technology, and the need to incorporate it into future infrastructure, such as ticketless train stations and offshore electricity transmission grids, is an evolving challenge. Whilst it offers possibilities for delivering innovative solutions, sponsors must comprehend, evaluate, and advocate for forward-thinking and future-proofed approaches in an environment where harnessing innovation can completely redefine programme outcomes.
  • Political uncertainty and increased budgetary constraints: Recent global influences, such as persistent inflation and changeable geo-politics, are putting increased pressures on budgets, with areas other than infrastructure becoming a greater priority for scarcer public funding. Increasingly, sponsors will be required to explore alternative – usually more complex – sources of funding and financing while managing affordability.
  • Government’s focus on wider outcomes: Infrastructure sponsors need to focus beyond delivering programme outputs. The UK Government's increased emphasis on broader economic and societal outcomes, as well as the need to support net zero targets, necessitates a more holistic understanding of the impact of infrastructure. Whilst not a completely new requirement, this has grown in importance in recent years and perhaps is best illustrated by Heathrow’s on-off third runway programme. Furthermore, there is increased pressure from government to establish robust monitoring and measurement frameworks to assess and clearly demonstrate the achievement of these outcomes.
  • Multi-organisation delivery and impact: Sponsors are having to navigate increasingly intricate stakeholder landscapes as funding sources are widened and scrutiny on delivery is heightened to harmonize the interests of the various parties involved.

Underpinning sponsorship frameworks with value-based behaviours

Whilst many organisations have well documented programme management frameworks and processes – setting out key products to be produced, governance frameworks and reporting processes – few explicitly focus on the key skills and behaviours required to empower successful infrastructure sponsorship. Furthermore, due to the inherent and growing ambiguity and uncertainty in which sponsors operate – further driven by the challenges described above – it is not sufficient to wholly rely on creating detailed, instructional processes to deliver sponsorship success.

Instead, organisations need to instil a more values-driven approach where, rather than rely on process, they create sponsorship teams with a more outcome-focused mindset and set of core underlying behaviours that support adaptability. This means sponsorship teams that:

  • Constantly challenge the status quo: Successful sponsors embed a culture of continuous questioning, fearlessly asking awkward but essential inquiries to ensure programmes are following the best course of action. They relentlessly focus on outcomes, challenging stakeholders on the need for their requirements and how they will contribute to the wider programme success. By cultivating an environment that encourages and values scrutiny, sponsors can drive further innovation and push the boundaries of what is possible within the constraints of funding and the wider stakeholder environment.
  • Embrace proportionality: Understanding that they do not need to grasp every intricate detail, successful sponsors navigate uncertainty to make informed decisions by understanding and rationally testing key trade-offs between costs, benefits, and risks. They leverage reports specifically tailored for decision-making purposes, avoiding the trap of creating excessive bureaucracy, and understand that decisions need to be made on the best information available, not the perfect information. By embracing proportionality, sponsors streamline processes, enable agility, and ensure efficient progress towards programme milestones.
  • Empower openness and collaboration: Successful sponsors lead by empowering individuals and their wider teams, recognising that processes should serve as guiderails rather than rigid rules. They incentivise behaviours that encourage calculated risk-taking, accepting certain ‘mistakes’ as learning opportunities with potential upsides. Furthermore, they actively demonstrate open and collaborative behaviours, providing honesty and openness regarding current positions on costs, benefits, and risks, accepting that they are a snapshot in time that may change. This helps foster trust and collaboration between organisations, and helps create a shared, continued commitment to programme success, navigating challenges as they arise.
  • Capture organisational learning: Forward-thinking sponsors recognise the value of capturing lessons learned, rather than reinventing for every programme. They establish structures and mechanisms to extract insights from both successful endeavours and challenges faced. Building and valuing organisational memory, as well as learning from other organisations and sectors, allows for the dissemination of best practices, fostering a culture of sharing and continuous improvement, recognising that learning exists in both success and failure.

Unlocking behaviours will steer far-reaching change

In the evolving landscape of infrastructure sponsorship, empowered sponsors who actively lead by demonstrating the behaviours set out above are essential for the successful delivery of major infrastructure programmes. Organisations need to develop the appropriate management structures, performance regimes, behavioural frameworks, and training and development pathways to empower their sponsorship teams with these behaviours. The ability to attract top talent by ensuring the sponsor role is highly respected with a clear career pathway to the most senior management positions is also essential.

In this dynamic environment, empowered sponsors are essential for shaping a future of sustainable and impactful infrastructure development. Organisations with highly effective sponsorship teams, will, through their strategic guidance, enable the realisation of transformative change, leading to far-reaching benefits for society, the economy, and the environment.

About the authors

Dominic Gibbeson PA strategy expert
Will Nixon PA infrastructure expert

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