Book Review: Project Stakeholder Management

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Project Stakeholder Management
Pernille Eskerod and Anna Lund Jepsen’s book, Project Stakeholder Management

In their book, Project Stakeholder Management, Pernille Eskerod and Anna Lund Jepsen say that projects often fail because stakeholders are not adequately considered.

“A recurring theme in these failures is project managers who have not taken sufficiently into account the interests and motivations of the persons or entities that can affect or be affected by the project,” they write.

This is the basic premise for the book – you have a better chance of project success if you engage stakeholders effectively. And even if you do deliver the project successfully without paying much attention to stakeholders, you can still end up with a project that doesn’t completely fulfil its brief due to unhappy stakeholders or a situation where benefits were oversold, the budget cut suddenly or something similar.

This book is all about how to manage stakeholders, but what does that actually mean? They define stakeholder management as “all purposeful stakeholder-related activities to support the success of your project.”

Fine. But how does that translate into tangible actions for a project manager?

Planning stakeholder interactions

The book covers behavioural theory to help you work out what motivates your stakeholders and drives their behaviour and how you can influence it. “Project stakeholders will have their own interests and perspectives related to the project,” Eskerod and Jepsen write. “That means they will not necessarily contribute, on their own account, as you may wish.” If you haven’t worked that out, frankly you’re not a very good project manager. This seems like stating the obvious but I suppose the book has to start with that.

However, the authors argue that alone, understanding how stakeholders think isn’t enough. You also need to:

  • Plan your stakeholder interactions in advance
  • Approach stakeholder analysis methodically
  • Document and store your knowledge about stakeholders.

In other words, you can’t leave stakeholder management to chance, and it needs to be a big part of your project planning.

“Stakeholder management is about being proactive and prepared on a continuous basis even though uncertainties and previously un-encountered issues make it difficult to know exactly how to prepare,” they say. It might seem pointless to plan stakeholder interactions in a world where everything changes, but they say it will help you make considered decisions and react appropriately when changes do happen. They write:

Unfortunately, we have seen many problems related to stakeholders during projects even in cases where time and resources were spend on stakeholder management planning in the project planning phase. This was because changes took place in the coalition or perceptions of stakeholders and the plan was never validated or revised during the course of the project. Consequently, too much time and too many resources were spent on stakeholders who only required modest attention and too few resources were spent on stakeholders who in the interim had grown in importance and in need of attention. In other cases we have seen stakeholders disengage because they felt neglected, forgotten or unfairly treated.

So you should review your stakeholder plan frequently and check that you are still on track.

Analysing stakeholders

Chapter 4 covers a model for stakeholder analysis. The authors present 3 steps:

1. Identify. Eskerod and Jepsen stress the point that it’s irrelevant whether or not you think someone is a stakeholder. It is their interpretation that counts. If someone thinks that they are a stakeholder, then they are. If you end up with a lot of stakeholders identified in this step, group them together to make the planning activities more manageable.

2. Assess. What is their contribution? Uncover their requirements and concerns if you can. Assess how much they will help or hinder you. My advice is that you might want to keep this bit of analysis private, as a document that sets out how annoying your stakeholders will be is not going to be good for building positive relationships. The book suggests that you map links between stakeholders and it includes several examples of charts and tables that you could adapt for your project.

3. Prioritise. Use your charts and tables to prioritise the stakeholders. This section includes a 3D cube that it is a good way of merging info from various grids. This is probably the most useful part of the book and the authors refer to it a lot.

Eskerod and Jepsen make the point that project stakeholders have their own stakeholders. Team members have their permanent ‘homes’, suppliers have other customers. You can’t easily see the competing demands that these other stakeholders put on your stakeholders. This is a challenge for anyone running a project without full-time project resources, and even project managers who do have the luxury of full-time resources. The best way to deal with it, in my opinion, is to make life as easy for your stakeholders as possible.

Ways of managing stakeholders

“You cannot manage project stakeholders properly if you lock yourself up in your office,” they write. Who has offices these days? Even so, you do need some advice on how to ‘do’ the managing once you have identified the stakeholders for your project. Eskerod and Jepsen compare different managing techniques:

Proactive vs. reactive. They recommend proactive stakeholder management although they do point out that doing nothing can also be proactive if you choose that course of action deliberately.

Collaborative vs. power-based. They recommend collaborative management and say that throwing your power around at work is an old-fashioned way of getting things done.

They also write about being ethical in your stakeholder dealings, and there is an entire chapter dedicated to this. The ethical approach can be summed up as don’t lie to or cheat your stakeholders and always aim to be transparent and fair.

Summing up

The book is academically researched, like most of the project management books published by Gower (now Routledge), including my own, and it finishes with some case studies. I was indifferent to these, and didn’t think they added a whole lot although if you don’t have much experience managing projects it is always useful to read about other people’s projects, especially when they go wrong.

Overall, I felt this book could be more use to project managers if it was more practical. It is trying to set out some practical guidelines, albeit after the theoretical concepts, but for me there weren’t enough diagrams, or step-by-step walkthroughs or clarity on the process. There is quite a lot on different ways of communicating successfully, but again it is all presented as big blocks of text.

If you want to put any of these ideas into practice you’ll have to read the book a couple of times and work out how best to implement them in your own environment. There are no cheat sheets or templates to use and I didn’t feel as if I could use any of the ideas straight away on my own projects.

Perhaps this is because there is no way to turn stakeholder management into a formula. There’s nothing wrong with using your brain to work out how best to implement ideas in a tailored fashion that suits your project and stakeholders. But if you are looking for a book that will give you a cookie cutter approach to stakeholder management, this isn’t it.

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