The Role of the Senior Responsible Owner (SRO)

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By : John Edmonds

20 October, 2015

Senior Responsible Owners are typically busy, senior executives and in addition to the projects they are sponsoring have many other responsibilities. So, how is it possible for a sponsor to complete their project or programme work and still have time for other duties?

John Edmonds looks at The Role of the Senior Responsible Owner (SRO) and highlights ways in which sponsors can boost project success and carry the vision of the venture forward.

Adrian Boorman: Hello, and welcome to this short video from Pearce Mayfield. Much has been said and written about the role of the project manager. That of the SRO is perhaps less well covered or well understood. Today we want to address this and I am joined in the studio by John Edmonds, Pearce Mayfield's Director of Training. John is an experienced Programme and Project Manager and he has been invited on many occasions, to coach and mentor senior members of project boards and business change leaders in the role or SRO.

He is here today to share his hands-on experience with us, so John, many thanks for coming in.

John Edmonds: You’re welcome, Adrian.

AB: Let’s begin with something very basic, please. Executive sponsor, project sponsor, SRO, lighten by darkness: are these all one and the same individual? What do these titles mean in plain English?

JE: Well, they could. Different organisations use different phrases to describe what we are talking about here.What we are talking about is  Senior Responsible Owner, as you say, often referred to as the SRO. And the clue is in the title, really: they are senior, they are responsible, and they are the owner of this venture, whatever it is. So, we could be talking about the same thing, but what we are going to focus on for the next few minutes is really this significant senior role, within a programme, or a project and the importance of it.

AB: Right. OK, well, in that case, let’s stick with the acronym SRO for the moment, for simplicity. You mentioned projects and programmes, but isn’t the SRO role more often associated with programmes?

JE: It is, absolutely right. In programme management and particularly within MSP – Managing Successful Programmes, that particular approach to programme management, the SRO role is the one that’s mentioned there. However, we are finding that more and more organisations are also using it with their projects as well. That can be quite confusing, and so we will need to sit down with people and say “what are we talking about here, are we talking about projects, programmes or are we using the words, the phrase more generally?”

AB: Right. So, there is a need to draw out that clarity right from the off.

JE: That’s right, there is.

AB: By the word, using the word ‘owner’, you are talking about ultimate responsibility?

JE: We are, yes. In fact, we’ll go a stage further and use the word ‘accountability’ here. We are talking about the single person who has been made accountable for the success of this project or programme.

AB: Right, OK. I want to come to the SRO within the organisational structure in a moment, but let’s just stay within the individual for a second. What level of seniority is an SRO likely to be, what would likely have been their past experience. Can you give us a few examples of the sorts of individuals that would be in the role of SRO?

JE: To answer the first question, what level of authority: an appropriate level of authority, is the answer to that.

AB: What a politician!

JE: Of course! It is going to be different in different situations, but the authority is very important. This person must have credibility amongst their peers in the organisation. If they have not got credibility, if they don’t carry the right authority, they are not going to be able to see this project or programme through. So we are looking for that. We are looking for somebody who has got that sense of leadership, who understands what is going on here and then can actually drive that forward. Somebody who can carry the vision of the venture forward.

AB: OK. So the SRO has a number of interfaces and responsibilities. Can you break a few of these out for us? Maybe if we split them up, those who are responsible to the board and those activities that then need to take place with other stakeholders.

JE: OK. You mentioned earlier on, we hear a lot about project managers and programme managers.They have got significant roles to carry out and it is a key relationship between the SRO and the project or programme manager, to make sure that the responsibilities are properly shared out amongst the team. There are key roles as well, but that is a key relationship that we need to work on. Working up to the project board or working to the programme board or the senior board within the organisation; these people are carrying accountability. The success or failure of that project or programme rests on their shoulders.

AB: Simple as that.

JE: Really, that what is boils down to.

AB: Quite daunting!

JE: It is really, so however that gets worked out in precise responsibilities, that’s the bottom line.

AB: OK. Here is the thing: that sounds like one heck of a job specification to me. Daunting as we said. What do you feel are the key attributes the successful SRO is likely to have, what behaviours, what characteristics, just highlight a few of those for us.

JE: Sure. To begin with, they have got to understand what a project or programme is, and that is not as easily done as we might like it to be. We do need somebody who is prepared to recognise the change that is being brought about here and to be the champion of that change. So we are looking for, in terms of attributes, we are looking for things like good engagement of stakeholders, good communication skills, for someone who can carry a vision and then communicate that vision really well. They know how to handle key risks, they know what the major points, major aspects of the project or programme are as well. Not getting bogged down in detail, but the ability to have the big picture in mind at all times.

AB: OK. How good are organisations, is a generalisation I know, but how good are organisations at making all this work?

JE: Good and bad. We see some good examples of this and we see some shocking examples as well. It is one of those things that we find organisations are just catching on to now, really. They have invested a lot of time and energy training up their managers, their project managers, their programme managers and now we are saying “time being spent on training up and educating SROs – in many cases, it’s long overdue.”

AB: That is interesting. You mentioned training and I did want to pick this up with you, but let’s just move forward a step. I think you produced some tips for an SRO, just tell me little more about these, we’ll come back to them in a second.

JE: OK. It was done recently for one of our clients who is investing time and energy into helping their SROs. To give them the tools and the techniques that they need to be successful. One of the things we did is we put together a list of Ten Top Tips; this wasn’t just ten ideas I came up with, but what I did, is, speaking to the rest of our team here at Pearce Mayfield, is seeing what has worked elsewhere and we trawled around and we looked at different organisations and we came up with this list of ten, which has gone down really well actually, and it has been very practical.

AB: OK, I am sure that will be very useful for people to have and I know that you have put something up. In fact, that is the document here and I’ll tell you at the end how you can get hold of John’s 10 tips if you’d like to.

We, how can I say this, I am not sure whether good SROs are born or made, but you mentioned training. What coaching, guidance, mentoring and another support is available for those who either find themselves in the role, perhaps unprepared, or about to be launched into the role?  What can be done to help them?

JE: We find that what doesn’t work is trying to just come up with this standard, off-the shelf solution that fits everyone. So we will do all the things that you mentioned: we will do workshops, we will do coaching and mentoring, we’ll provide a whole range of solutions to help people, who are going to be very busy people, bear in mind. These are senior managers in the organisation…So we need to provide something that is useful at the point of need for them. So we have done a number of different interventions. All of them have proved quite useful and all of them have people on to become better SROs.

AB: OK, and they can be delivered as short, sharp, very focused interventions and discreet interventions.

JE: Yes, one day, half-day workshops, we’ve even done forty minutes sessions in some situations, actually sitting with SROs as they start they first board meeting, working with them and just coaching them, actually at the point of delivery.

AB: So it could be very time effective?

JE: It can, yes.

AB: Thank you, John. It has been great to talk to you today. Before you go, I want to run this past you: I came across a survey, published a few years back now, by a consultancy company called Moorehouse, and it was called ‘Benchmarking Sponsors Attitudes’, quite interesting. It found that 83% of the SRO’s polled believed that had they had training in how to understand the role of the SRO and lead a programme beforehand, they would have found it very valuable. Got to leave a quick last comment to you.

JE: That exactly ties in with my experience of meeting with SROs who coming on one of our workshops have said things like “I didn’t have a clue what this was about until we started to talk about it, so that doesn’t surprise me that 83% felt that as well.

AB: And you don’t know what you don’t know.

JE: Yes, absolutely.

AB: John, that sounds like a very good place to leave it. Many thanks again.

JE: Thank you.