One of the most important meetings in the life of a project should happen at the project’s inception. I call it the “Cheeseburger Talk.” This blog post describes the purpose and process of the cheeseburger talk so that you can consider the trade-offs between your cholesterol levels and effective sponsor orientation and project definition.

Anyone who has engaged in marketing that involved schmoozy clients lunches knows the business lunch rule: Never order messy food. No ribs, no spaghetti, no drippy cheeseburgers. The reason? It’s difficult to maintain an aura of dignity and propriety when you have ketchup on your chin. The cheeseburger talk is specifically designed to break this rule and capitalize on the consequences.

An important discussion must occur at the start of a project between the project’s sponsor and project manager. To be effective, this discussion needs to be relaxed and candid. Getting the sponsor away from the workplace, away from the trappings of his or her office (the credenza, secretary, and that BIG desk) to engage in one-on-one dialog is essential. If the executive gets sauce on his or her hands or face, you get extra credit.

The relationship between the project manager and the sponsor is unique. The sponsor has a business problem to solve and controls the priorities and resources of the organization. The project manager’s job is to work with the sponsor to define a project that addresses the business problem and then look for a credible way to perform the project within the sponsor’s schedule and resource targets. The project manager is there to support the sponsor’s decision making as well as to define, plan and manage the project. To do this well the project manager must understand the sponsor’s goals. In my experience, the best way to discover what someone wants is to ask.

Some of the questions that must be asked may be perceived as insubordinate or challenging of the sponsor’s authority or wisdom… so they shouldn’t be asked in a public forum, by e-mail, or in an environment that encourages the sponsor to wear their “boss” hat. The intention of the cheeseburger and the cheeseburger talk is to help the project manager get to the heart of the sponsor’s motivation and to lay a foundation for defining and running the project. I strongly recommend approaching these questions the first time in a casual setting.


  • What do you want?
  • Why is our organization interested in doing this?
  • What would a successful project produce?
  • How will we know we are done and successful?
  • What is the successful project worth to our organization?


  • What resources are you willing to commit to the project (people, equipment, materials, facilities, $$$)?
  • How did you come to believe that these resources were sufficient for the project?


  • When do you want it?
  • Why then?
  • What is the business impact of delivery a day or a week or a month later than your target?
  • What would early delivery be worth?


  • How did we come to be here?
  • Why haven’t we done this sooner?
  • Has this project (or anything like it) been attempted before? What happened?


  • As the project progresses, what status information would you like to receive?
  • How often do you want to receive regular status?
  • How shall I contact you if I have questions or issues with the project?
  • Who is authorized to change the schedule, scope and resource bounds of the project once we have agreed to a written project definition?
  • If at any time, I develop concerns about the project’s viability, when do you want to know?

The last question is key. You will always get the same answer, “I would want to know right away.”, but the question underscores the relationship between the project manager and the sponsor. The project manager is the sponsor’s eye and ears. If new information suggests the project goals are in trouble, it is the project manager’s obligation to notify the sponsor promptly. This question reminds both parties of that duty.

These questions make a great agenda for lunch. They can be covered in casual conversation to provide the project context and history as well as the schedule, scope and resource boundaries. They may look simple, but it is surprising how many project managers cannot answer these “simple” questions for projects that have been underway for months.

The cheeseburger talk sets a tone for the project. It establishes a foundation for the project manager prior to project definition and it reinforces the sponsor/project manager relationship. All this and a lunch too – and the sponsoring executive should probably pick up the tab – it doesn’t get any better than this.

The cheeseburger talk is a perfect ice-breaker and helps establish the project manager/sponsor relationship at the start of the project, or any time there is a personnel change in the project manager or sponsor role. When was the last time you had lunch with your sponsor?


cheeseburger talkABOUT THE AUTHOR: 

Payson Hall, PMP® is a consulting project manager for Catalysis Group, Inc. in Sacramento, California. Payson has performed and consulted on a variety of hardware and software systems integration projects in both the public and private sectors throughout North America and Europe during his 35-year professional career. He can be reached at

Payson is pleased to announce publication of his new book with co-author Dawne Chandler about Improving Executive Project Sponsorship.

RELATED CONTENT: Listen to this podcast: Elise Stevens speaks with Payson Hall, a consulting project manager for Catalysis Group, Inc. in Sacramento, California about project sponsorship.


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