The Merlin Factor

By Tom Barker

The Critical Role of Sponsorship in Making Projects a Success

What is sponsorship and why do we claim that it is like being a magician.

Because sponsors make projects successful without appearing to directly work on them and magicians make things change without appearing to touch them.

Because like magicians we cannot see the connection between what we observe the executive doing and the business outcomes that they are seeking. Unfortunately many executives are themselves somewhat in the dark about these connections too!

Put in another way the sponsor’s role is to focus on “high leverage actions” that produce disproportionate results. As Peter Senge points out (in The Fifth Discipline) the problem with identifying high leverage actions is that they are “non-obvious” to most participants within the system.

One analogy that Senge refers to for high leverage actions is the trim tab or “rudder on a rudder”. The trim tab acts on the huge rudder of a large ship or supertanker and helps to turn it, which then turns the ship. This tiny rudder is below the waterline and while everyone who sees a ship at sea knows that it has a rudder, few if any know that the rudder itself has a rudder. Likewise the sponsor plays the role of this rudder within a rudder for the organization.

Our researches have shown that this is the “magic” that sponsors produce, of small changes applied at precisely the right place and time, to turn big organizational ships and keeps them headed on the right course.

Why is sponsorship difficult?

There is a tendency for everyone in an organization to “Go with the flow” – what hundreds of people are working on must be right project. What the CEO says is bound to be right. The technology we’ve used for ten years must be the only technology to use. Yet if any improvement is to occur, all these things must be questioned in an open-minded way. While everyone accepts this point in principle, in reality everyone hates having basic assumptions challenged. It upsets their comfortable world.

Asking the tough questions, and making sure that the organization answers them emphatically and clearly before proceeding past the point of no return, is what sponsors do. As such they are the essential catalyst for projects to be successful.

There is an old saying in business that “nothing happens until somebody sells something.” For projects it seems that we can say “no project is successful until the organization is sold on it”, and the person who does that is the sponsor.

A Model of Sponsorship

We believe that sponsorship (the Merlin effect) consists of three core activities: focused on INFLUENCE, INTENTIONS AND INFORMATION as shown by the following model.

Example for Movie Producer as Sponsor

merlinfigure2 The Merlin Factor

In surveying business organizations and industries to find examples of executives sponsorship we have found no clearer example than the role of a movie producer within the movie industry.

A rare glimpse into how movie production works is provided by the co-chairmen of the Working Title production company, Eric Fellner and Tim Bevan. Movie production as described by Fellner and Bevan is the very essence of sponsorship, with a focus on three key activities.

While Working Title have not had a lot of true blockbuster (over $100 M US) movies they have enjoyed a steady stream of successful movies, such as Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill, Elizabeth, Billy Elliot, Fargo, Bridget Jones Diary, About a Boy.

The leverage of film producers can be gauged from the fact that although an average movie crew may number 150-200 people, Working Title manages 4 movies at a time with a staff of 40 people from their low key offices in London’s West End.

Intentions – Defining Purpose and Generating Ideas

The secret to producing a successful movie, according to Fellner and Bevan, is the right script. As they explain:

“Everyone thinks the big moment is when a film starts shooting, but if you get the script right then you can get the cast right, you get the right people to produce it and shooting is (then) just a process”

In other words, a script is the producer’s key tool for selling the purpose behind the movie to actors, to directors, to financial backers. It is on the basis of the script that contracts are made.

Influence – Building Relationships and Obtaining Resources

Without building the right relationships a producer cannot hope to get the buy-in and backing of the gatekeepers in Hollywood, the studios, talent agencies, the distributors. Fellner and Bevan say that the essence of these negotiations is brinkmanship.

Like many sponsors of big projects, Fellner and Bevan often find such negotiations hang in the balance – will people support it or not? (If they do, it will fly; if they don’t, it won’t, but don’t let them know that.)

“The whole thing is about brinkmanship. It’s brinkmanship to get a movie on, its brinkmanship to get an actor into your movie”.

Fellner and Bevan’s credibility is sufficiently high with Hollywood that they can give the green light for the $25 M US that it takes to make a movie without consulting their Hollywood backers.

Information – Evaluating Outcomes and Taking Corrective Action

The producers don’t like to be too involved in the movie production because as they point out its “just a process” and with average film costs of $250,000 US per day, any interference at that stage is costly.

They do, however, get heavily involved in evaluating the footage prior to the movie’s release. It is at this point that nearly all of the production costs have been spent but the budget for marketing and distribution, which cost as much again as production, has not yet been spent.

“You get very, very involved in the editing process because that’s the point where it either all comes together, or it doesn’t”.

The movie producer, like good sponsors everywhere, make sure that they get personally involved in driving key decisions that have the biggest dollar, payback

  • Choosing the right script ideas to make into movies
  • Getting the right resources to make the movie on the right terms
  • Ensuring that the final footage is right before its release as a movie

The Sponsorship Gap at the Top

One of the largely un-noticed outcomes of our rapidly changing markets and organizations is that people are propelled upwards toward the executive boardroom without any real preparation for the role their organization needs them to play.

merlinfigure1 The Merlin Factor

This situation is depicted in the diagram (Figure 1). In the early part of their career in the organization there are plenty of development opportunities for the skills and experience that they need to master. There are also lots of others who are in the same position, who they can “compare notes” with and learn from. In their early promotions they make a shift from doing tasks to managing people who do those tasks, which is a significant shift. However there are numerous training courses, books, seminars and most importantly, there are (in most cases) a number of other, more senior, managers to learn from. There is much to learn and much to cope with, and the issues come thick and fast right from the first day.

Over the years individuals develop skills that enable them to cope fairly effectively with a stream of issues that arise from employees, customers and other stakeholders. Having demonstrated an ability to cope with operational complexity, the individual is now (if lucky enough) catapulted into the executive ranks.

This is a much bigger jump. For while management positions at least bear some resemblance to the core tasks (like project work or interacting with customers) of the organization, executive work does not. Little wonder that many people in reaching the corner office seem to continue to operate exactly as they did when they were managers.

Needless to say this creates huge problems for their organization, their company has a “gap” at executive level and over-crowding in the management ranks. The new “executive-manager” elbows their own subordinates out of the way and grabs “key” issues/projects to personally “drive” with the excuse that “they’re too important (to leave to lesser folk)”.

This phenomenon creates what we have dubbed the “sponsorship gap” because we believe that the essence of the executive role, and the aspect that eludes most incumbents is sponsorship.

Sponsorship involves a few key activities that are fundamental to the success of the organization. Sponsorship can be learned. Most managers who wish to do so, can become effective sponsors although the more skill they have, of course, the more effective they will be.

In the next installment, we will move from “why we need sponsors” to “how to become a more effective sponsor.”

Tom Barker is a principal in Process Design Consultants Inc., a consulting firm specializing in project management, business process improvement, and organizational problem solving and decision making.

“First published in Project Times Winter 2000” (Project Times link

Previous post:

Next post: