Dealing with Difficult Stakeholders – A Practical Guide (Book Review)

by Jake Holloway, David Bryde, Roger Joby, published by Gower Publishing Ltd (Farnham, Surrey) as part of the “Advances in Project Management” series, ISBN 978-1-4094-0737-9, 122 pages, £26.50 RRP (review copy provided free of charge by the publishers)
Pragmatic PMO Rating: ****

This book aims to improve Project Managers’ understanding of their projects’ stakeholders, and in doing so to improve the quality of engagement and hence project outcomes.

It starts by stating the obvious (but easily forgotten) truth that project stakeholders are all human beings (hmmm, not sure if I can say that applies to all the stakeholders I’ve dealt with…) with all the emotions, personal agendas, hopes and fears that entails. It crucially points out that they may not care about or really support the project (even if they say they do), and that behind the scenes they may even be working really hard to ensure it fails.

The book analyses the various motivations for this type of behaviour (which differ according to the stakeholder’s relationship to the project, and their position in the organisation). It deals with each type of stakeholder in turn (Sponsor, Team, internal/external Clients, internal/external Suppliers), using psychological and business research to explain various ways in which that type of stakeholder may behave. It then suggests practical ways in which these stakeholders can be engaged to improve their interaction with the project and increase the likelihood of a positive outcome. It adds colour (and spice!) by illustrating these approaches with real examples drawn from the authors’ experience.

Here a few key “take-aways” that resonated with me and my experience:

  • Accurate reporting may be suppressed or prevented if they differ from the perceptions of a powerful stakeholder (I have seen this in the form of Green Side Up reporting)
  • Changing stakeholder attitudes may not be possible; focus instead on changing their behaviour
  • The most successful approaches for dealing with project saboteurs are generally those in which the saboteur appears to win (or at least not to lose)
  • Project Team members are also stakeholders, with their own motivations, agendas, and objectives. Make sure they are motivated to deliver the project! (the book contains approaches to deal with everything from one or two uncooperative team members to all-out mutiny)
  • When delivering a project for an external Client, make sure they understand you are only delivering the product; it is up to them to use that product to realise the benefits.
  • Enlist the project’s End Users, give them a voice, and use it to influence the Sponsor and Project Board.
  • Pay attention to project Gatekeepers (PMO, Finance). Engage with them, provide what they ask for and follow their procedures as far as possible, and they will be more sympathetic if (when?) you need to do something that breaks The Rules or doesn’t fit inside them.

At 90 pages of actual text, this is not a long read, and is easy to follow and understand. It gave me several “Aha!” moments (NOW I understand why that person behaved that way on that project, and how we could have handled it better…)

I would say that this book is probably most likely to be useful to someone who has a few projects under their belt, and wants to understand and relate to their stakeholders better.

Price per page may seem a little high, but at £5 or less per actionable insight I would say it represents good value for money.

Author: Ken

Ken Burrell is a contract Project, Programme and Portfolio Office (PMO) Professional, who makes targeted improvements to PMO practices to add value to Projects, Programmes and Portfolios through engagements of his company Pragmatic PMO. He provides senior management with the analysis they need to make decisions, and gives project and programme managers the support they need to deliver solutions.

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