Advancing project stakeholder analysis by standing on the shoulders of giants

Pernille Eskerod, PhD

Professor, University of Southern Denmark

Martina Huemann, PhD

Professor, WU Vienna University of Economics and Business


In this paper we aim to advance the understanding of project stakeholder analysis by identifying contributions and inspirations from other fields.

The stakeholder concept became well-known when Freeman in his book Strategic Management: A Stakeholder Approach in 1984 suggested that the Managerial View of the firm focusing on owners, suppliers, employees, and customers should be replaced by a Stakeholder View of the firm which included more groups, for example authorities, unions, consumer advocates, competitors, environmentalists, special interest groups, and media. He claimed that without understanding the needs and concerns of these stakeholder groups the firm could not formulate corporate objectives that would make the stakeholders support the firm sufficiently for its present and future survival.

Even though Freeman can be coined the stakeholder concept giant, Freeman identified many earlier giants himself and traced the origin of the stakeholder term to an internal memorandum at Stanford Research Institute in 1963. In the 1970s researchers within more fields contributed to the stakeholder management understanding, even though not all of them used the stakeholder term, e.g. Pfeffer and Salancik in their resource dependence perspective.

Acknowledged giants within project management as Cleland and King made important inputs in the 1970s by offering a method for analyzing clientele groups and claimants. Drawing on systems theory, Ackoff suggested that stakeholders should be seen in a system. He offered a method for doing stakeholder analysis of organizational systems. Further, he claimed that problem solving of system-wide problems requires participation of stakeholders. He proposed a method for the inclusion of stakeholder groups in analysis and problem solution.

Leaving other prominent researchers out and jumping to the present, Freeman is still a major giant in the field. In 2007, he and Harrison and Wicks suggested managing for stakeholders. This approach—in opposition to the instrumental approach managing stakeholders, or management for stakeholders—takes an ethical stand by considering and involving more stakeholders than the ones with the biggest potentials for helping or harming the organization.

Despite all the valuable inputs from giants within various fields, our claim is that the current understanding of project stakeholder analysis is lacking important elements. A core weakness is that it is based on a rational-analytical approach at a highly aggregated level, even though Freeman already in 1984 argued that (1) a danger in stakeholder analysis is to see stakeholders as 'unreasonable' or 'irrational' and (2) that it might be wise to break a category of stakeholders, like government and employees, down in smaller categories for analysis.

In this paper, we advance project stakeholder analysis by investigating the usefulness of a method 'systemic constellation' which originated in family therapy, but has been adopted by the general management field. In opposition to classical project stakeholder analysis it enables the inclusion of emotions, attitudes, prejudices, and unconscious assumptions—and thereby provides a richer basis for understanding the stakeholders.

The method was applied on a real case and discussed by researchers and practitioners in a focus group set up. Findings suggest that systemic constellation builds on the roots of stakeholder theory and at the same time enables stakeholder analysis beyond the analytical- rational level and an aggregated level.

Keywords: project stakeholder analysis; stakeholder theory; systems theory; systemic method; case study


Stakeholder management has been acknowledged as a core project management task since Cleland (1985) introduced it in the project management literature more than 25 years ago. Still though, many problems related to stakeholder issues can be observed (see e.g. Dalcher, 2009), and many projects are characterized by the fact that the stakeholders' expectations are not sufficiently considered or met (Shenhar & Dvir, 2007). At the same time, Killen, Jugdev, Drouin and Petit (2012) claim that “most PM research. remain[s] largely atheoretical” (p. 526). Similarly, Koskela and Howell (2002) claim that there is no underlying theory of project management.

In this paper, we advance project management and especially project stakeholder analysis by fertilizing the field with concepts, frameworks, and methods from other theoretical fields. We identify giants in the form of researchers who have made significant contributions in the past and in the present to the understanding of stakeholder analysis. Further, we investigate a potential project stakeholder analysis method, systemic constellation, due to the fact that a number of authors (e.g. Birkenkrahe, 2009; Kopp & Martinuzzi, 2013; Sachs-Schaffer, 2009; Sachs-Schaffer, Gschwend, & Sachs, 2007) claim that systemic thinking is a helpful means to grasp increased complexity in the contemporary stakeholder landscapes project managers and project teams are facing.

Our research questions are: Who are the giants who have provided conceptual inputs to the understanding of project stakeholder analysis? And in which ways is systemic constellation a method suitable for project stakeholder analysis?

The paper is structured as follows: First we present a number of significant researchers concerning the stakeholder concept as well as stakeholder analysis. Hereafter we present the theoretical framework underlying the research, i.e. project stakeholder analysis and the method systemic constellation. Afterwards we introduce the research design and findings. Findings include a description of the experiences and reflections drawn from applying the method on a real case in a focus group meeting. Finally, the paper is concluded by a discussion of the strengths and limitations of the proposed stakeholder analysis method.

Identifying Relevant Theoretical Giants

R. Edward Freeman, who was professor at University of Minnesota in the 1980s, can be identified as the giant within stakeholder management when he published his book Strategic Management: A Stakeholder Approach in 1984 and thereby founded the Stakeholder View of the firm, in opposition to the Production View of the firm and the Managerial View of the firm (1984). According to Freeman, the managerial focus in the Production View of the firm was to procure resources from suppliers, turn the resources into products, and sell the products to customers. Due to the fact that companies typically were small owner-entrepreneur founded entities with the owner's family members as the workers, business success was only depended on the firm's ability to satisfy suppliers and customers. With the Industrial Revolution's development of new production processes, technological development, urbanization, significant investments in production facilities and infrastructure the companies grew bigger, and the managerial task for a non-owning manager with non-family members grew to include issues concerning owners and employees, i.e. changing The Production View of the firm with a Managerial View of the firm.

Freeman's argument was that in the 1980s Managerial View of the firm was no longer sufficient to create success for a company due to the fact that more individuals and groups should be taken into managerial consideration. In other words, management should consider the firm's stakeholders in terms of “any group or individual who can affect or is affected by the achievement of the firm's objectives” (Freeman, 1984, p. 25).

Even though Freeman can be seen as the giant of general stakeholder theory, he himself gave credit to other researchers by pointing to their related work. He traced the stakeholder concept back to 1963, when researchers in an internal memorandum at the Stanford Research Institute (SRI) defined stakeholders as “those groups without whose support the organization would cease to exist” (SRI as cited in Freeman, 1984, p. 31). In addition, he found many early traces within streams of literature on corporate planning, systems theory, corporate social responsibility, and organization theory, even though not all of them used the stakeholder concept.

Two giants within the field of project management, William R. King and David I. Cleland, worked back in the 1970s within corporate planning, and as early as 1978 in their book Strategic Planning and Policy they gave a method based on their work on project management “for analyzing 'clientele groups', 'claimants' or 'stakeholders'” (Freeman, 1984, p. 34). King had worked as a pilot and an officer within the U.S. Air Force and held a PhD degree within operations research from 1964. For the PhD degree he had another important figure within stakeholder theory, Russell L. Ackoff, as his supervisor. In 1967 King joined the University of Pittsburgh's Katz Graduate School of Business to pursue an academic career. David I. Cleland also joined theUniversity of Pittsburgh, at the Swanson School of Engineering in 1967. He had worked as project manager in the design, development, and manufacturing of weapons systems within the U.S. Air Force. Today Cleland is recognized as “The Father of Project Management” (Knutson, 2002, p. xxii).

According to Freeman (1984), corporate planning and policy were basically “concerned with the configuration of an organization's resources in relation to its external environment” (p. 34); whereas, strategic planning was “inherently connected with setting some direction for the organization, based on an analysis of organizational capabilities and environmental opportunities and threats” (p. 34). Therefore, analysis of information about environments, i.e. the stakeholders, was of a core activity in order to predict environmental opportunities and threats.

Exactly the same year as King and Cleland's book on the subject, the American researchers Jeffrey Pfeffer and Gerald R. Salancik published their book The External Control of Organizations: A Resource Dependence Perspective with Stanford University Press. In line with Stanford Research Institute's definition of stakeholders as “those groups without whose support the organization would cease to exist” (Freeman, 1984, p. 31), Pfeffer and Salancik were concerned with external constraints affecting organizations due to dependency. Their focus was to contribute to the theoretical framework by offering ways for designing and managing the organizations in order to mitigate the constraints as well as explaining how external resources affect the behavior due to any organization's need for procurement of resources (Pfeffer & Salancik, 1978).

King's supervisor, Russel Ackoff, who can also be identified as one of the giants, worked with corporate planning e (see e.g. Ackoff, 1970). Drawing on systems theory, Ackoff suggested that stakeholders should be seen in a system. He offered a method for doing stakeholder analysis of organizational systems. Further he claim that problem solving of system-wide problems required the participation of stakeholders. He proposed a method for inclusion of stakeholder groups in analysis and problem solution—and illustrated it with case studies on designing large scale projects (Ackoff, 1974).

In the 1960s and 1970s, social movements in for example civil rights, women's rights, anti-war, environmentalism, and consumerism fueled stakeholder thinking by pointing to the role in society of the business enterprise as well as giving birth to the field of corporate social responsibility (Freeman, 1984). The stakeholder concept was applied to non-traditional stakeholder groups like the public and the community and less emphasis was placed on satisfying the company owners. In addition, the benefit from letting stakeholder groups actively participate in decision making was articulated in the strategic management literature as Dill (1975) argued:

For a long time, we have assumed that the views and initiative of stakeholders could be dealt with as externalities to the strategic planning and management process: as data to help management shape decisions, or as legal and social constraints to limit them. We have been reluctant, though to admit the idea that some of these outside stakeholders might seek and earn active participation with management to make decisions. The move today is from stakeholder influence towards stakeholder participation.

(as cited in Freeman, 1984, p. 38)

Hereby a task of strategic managers became to act as communicators with the stakeholders (Dill, 1975).

So far the giants identified have been situated in the United States. A Swedish researcher, Eric Rhenman, explicitly used the stakeholder concept in his book Industrial Democracy in 1968. He pointed to the mutual dependencies between company and stakeholders—meaning that individuals and groups like employees, owners, customers, suppliers, creditors, i.e. a company's stakeholders—depend on the company in order to be able to realize their personal goals; whereas, the company is dependent on the stakeholders to realize the company objectives (Rhenman, 1968). Even though he was Swedish, he was influenced by the U.S. researchers, as he was visiting Stanford at the time when he wrote the book (Freeman, 1984).

Leaving the first movers within stakeholder thinking behind and jumping to the present, Freeman still stands as one of the giants within the field, owing to the impressive number of publications in journals, books and other sources that he contributed.

Together with Jeffrey Harrison and Andrew Wicks, he recently published a book entitled Managing for Stakeholders (Freeman, Harrison & Wicks, 2007) and with two additional coauthors, Bidhan Parmar and Simone de Colle, a book titled Stakeholder Theory: The State of the Art (Freeman, Harrison, Wicks, Parmar, & de Colle, 2010).

A very interesting contribution in the two books is the concept of Managing for Stakeholders (Freeman et al., 2007, 2010). Managing for stakeholders is an approach or mindset. In contrast to the classical and instrumental managing stakeholders or management of stakeholders approach, the managing for stakeholders approach, which the authors call a normative approach or an ethical approach (Freeman et al., 2007, 2010), suggests that all stakeholders have the right and legitimacy to receive attention from the organization (see e.g. Julian, Ofori- Dankwa, & Justis, 2008). Stakeholders should not be seen as means to specific aims in the organization but valuable in themselves (Donaldson & Preston, 1995). In other words: “Stakeholders are persons or groups with legitimate interests in procedural and/or substantive aspects of corporate activity. Stakeholders are identified by their interests in the corporation, whether the corporation has any corresponding functional interest in them” (Donaldson & Preston, 1995: 67, original emphases). This means that an analysis of the stakeholders' potentials for supporting or threatening the organization (as proposed by Freeman (1984) and Savage, Nix, Whithead, & Blair (1991)) should not form the basis of how they are treated. Instead, they should be embraced by the organization and win-win situations should be sought. The approach has received criticism due to the fact that the strive for win-win situations risks leading to conflict-free solutions that are not very ambitious and thereby not very value-adding for neither the company nor the stakeholders (Hahn, Figge, Pinkse, & Preuss, 2010).

Project Stakeholder Analysis and Systemic Constellation

Returning to the project management field, it is acknowledged (building on Pfeffer & Salancik, 1978) that project stakeholders are important for project success due to the fact that the project needs contributions (financial and non-financial resources) from them, and because they assess the (potential) success of the project (Aarseth, Rolstadas, & Andersen, 2011; Morris & Hough, 1987). Typical project stakeholders are investors, suppliers, customers, users, authorities, neighbors, and media.

To procure resources for the project as well as to satisfy project stakeholders, stakeholder analysis plays an important role (Eskerod & Jepsen, 2013). The aim of doing project stakeholder analysis is to increase the project team's possibility to “anticipate opportunities and problems for the project at a time when the project team still has time and opportunity for maneuvering” (Jepsen & Eskerod, 2009, p. 336). Doing stakeholder analysis serves two purposes: (1) to help the project representatives accomplish the project by identifying ways to procure the necessary financial and non-financial resources, including avoiding counter actions, and (2) to help the project representatives understand the interests and concerns of the project stakeholders.

Each of the two purposes relates both to an instrumental approach of stakeholder management, i.e. a Management of Stakeholders approach (making stakeholders do what is needed by the project) and a normative or ethical approach, i.e. a Management for Stakeholders approach (making the project do what is needed by the stakeholders) (Eskerod & Huemann, 2013; Freeman et al., 2007; Freeman et al., 2010). The first purpose (resource procurement) concerns how the project representatives find ways to make the stakeholders willing as well as able to contribute needed resources (instrumental approach) in order to achieve the benefits they strive for to fulfill their needs (ethical approach). The second approach (procurement of knowledge on the stakeholders' needs and concerns) concerns how the project representatives find ways whereby the project satisfies the needs of the stakeholders (ethical approach), while at the same time figuring out how to enhance project success in the form of stakeholder satisfaction (instrumental approach).

Based on the above argumentation, we claim that project stakeholder analysis increases the possibilities of combining the 'of' and 'for' approaches—and thereby the likelihood for both project management success (i.e. finishing the project on time, within budget, on specification, and to stakeholder satisfaction) and project product success (i.e. fulfilling the purposes of the project and harvesting stipulated benefits for the investor and other stakeholders) (Andersen, 2008). The reason is that the analysis helps the project manager and the project team to see (in proper time) the project through more lenses: the project's lenses and the stakeholders' lenses—and seek win-win solutions instead of trade-offs.

To obtain this it is, however, necessary that the applied project stakeholder analysis methods are appropriate, and neither too complex (so that they are difficult to apply or the data produced too overwhelming to make use of) nor too superficial (so that data produced are not relevant or sufficient). Unfortunately, many authors within the project management literature claim that the current methods for project stakeholder analysis are of limited value. For example Jepsen and Eskerod (2009) state that 'the current guidelines for project stakeholder management should be considered as a conceptual framework rather than instructions on how to do a real world stakeholder analysis” (p. 335). Eskerod & Huemann (2013) have analyzed the international standards and bodies of knowledge (i.e. A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge [PMBOK® Guide], ICB, and PRINCE2) and argue that today's working forms of stakeholder management have a number of limits. The core argument is that the current working forms are not suited for grasping the increased complexity facing project managers and project teams, not least when required to consider and incorporate principles of sustainable development. This reflects our observations from practice, and is also in line with Porter and Kramer (2011), who point to stakeholder management challenges from aiming at creating shared benefits with the project stakeholders in the context of sustainable development.

Characteristics of Project Stakeholder Analysis

Classical project stakeholder analysis methods contain typically a number of steps, involving stakeholder identification and various stakeholder assessments, for example, determination of needed contributions from each stakeholder, as well as each stakeholder's requirements, wishes, and concerns in relation to the project (see e.g. Eskerod & Huemann, 2014; Karlsen, 2002, Littau, Jujagiri, & Adlbrecht, 2010; Yang, Shen, Bourne, Ho, & Xue, 2011). Based on the assessments, strategies are chosen on how to interact with each stakeholder.

As conflicting interests may exist between the project team and various stakeholders or across more of the stakeholders, prioritization is often an important part of the strategy planning (Jepsen & Eskerod, 2009). Mitchell, Agle, and Wood (1997) suggest categorizing the identified stakeholders based on an assessment of three attributes concerning each given issue, i.e. the issues that lead to a need for prioritization: Power, legitimacy, and urgency. A powerful legitimate stakeholder with an urgent request should be offered more management attention than a stakeholder without the three attributes. Prioritization of stakeholders is also part of the classic work of Freeman (1984) (even though Derry [2012] claims that this is not a proper interpretation of Freeman). In the book, Freeman suggests to differentiate the stakeholders in primary and secondary stakeholders in order to allocate the limited management resources properly. The primary stakeholders are the ones that are essential to the organization's wellbeing and survival, while the secondary stakeholders are the rest. Issue-focus is another characteristic of classical stakeholder analysis (Savage et al., 1991).

Even though exceptions exist (e.g. Ackerman & Eden, 2011), it is characteristic for the project management literature that the relationships between the project and the stakeholders are seen as dyadic relationships, meaning mutual between the project and each stakeholder, placing the project in the middle. More authors (e.g. Eskerod & Jepsen, 2013) have pointed to the weakness of this project-centric approach due to the fact that it does not acknowledge that (1) the project may not be the center of attention for the stakeholders as they have their own set of stakeholders to relate to (and some of them may even be more important), and (2) the project stakeholders may relate to each other and even be more influenced by some of the other stakeholders than the project team, and (3) the project stakeholders may form coalitions and hereby be much more powerful than a dyadic analysis can detect. Therefore, we claim, project stakeholder analysis methods will benefit from a systemic approach instead of a dyadic approach. This is in line with Ackoff's classical work (1974), in which he suggests 'stakeholders in a system' as the proper unit of analysis. Also, Checkland (2000) discusses soft systems methodology.

However, if not only the relation between the project and each stakeholder needs to be considered but further mutual relationships are of importance and drive the dynamic of stakeholder relations, the analytical task becomes increasingly complex. While we claim that this complexity better represents reality, project managers and project teams are challenges to apply adequate methods to analyze the complex situation. We argue that visualization of the relationships (Bourne & Walker, 2006), abstraction, and systemic thinking are of importance in order to grasp the increased complexity in a comprehensive stakeholder analysis. This is in line with authors who suggest methods for stakeholder mapping and visualization in order to generate rich pictures of the situation at hand (see e.g. Bourne & Walker, 2005, 2008; Walker, Bourne, & Shelley, 2008; Walker & Steinfort, 2013).

In addition, project stakeholder analysis is an environmental interpretation process (Aaltonen, 2011) in which the project representatives have the obligation not to perceive the stakeholder as unreasonable or irrational, but instead realize that the current understanding of the particular stakeholder is not adequate or sufficient (Freeman, 1984). A better analysis result will typically be obtained if a given stakeholder category, like government and employees, is broken down into smaller categories for the analysis, maybe even at the individual level instead of an aggregated level (Ackermann & Eden, 2011; Eskerod & Jepsen, 2013; Freeman, 1984).

We claim that the method 'systemic constellation' may be suitable for all these purposes and concerns.

Characteristics of the Method Systemic Constellation

The method systemic constellation originates from family therapy, but has been adopted by the general management field. It is increasingly applied in the context of change and conflict in organizations (Birkenkrahe, 2009; Stam, 2006). Specific forms of system constellations have been developed, for example systemic structural constellations (Sparrer, 2007; Varga von Kibed & Sparrer, 2011). For a comprehensive differentiation of systemic constellation types, see Kopp and Martinuzzi (2013).

Systemic constellation is an instrument to display structures in relationships within a system such as an organization, a team, or an abstract system, in a spatial way. Systemic constellations can be utilized in the analysis as well as in the further development of possible changes of these relationship-structures (Kopp & Martinuzzi, 2013). It relates to the concept of 'sociogram' (Moreno, 1934), which is the graphic representation of a given person's social links.

The purpose of a systemic constellation is to utilize the intuitive knowledge of the client (the person who has an issue) to position the relationships between parts of the system in a space. This includes emotions, attitudes, prejudices, and unconscious assumptions.

The parts of the system are represented by people participating in the constellation session at hand or by symbols, e.g. a chair. The representatives are normally not part of the system, i.e. the real case that is analyzed. The facilitator has the role to guide the constellation and help focus on the most important system parts. By appointing the representatives as parts of the system and positioning them in a space, the client visualizes and externalizes his/her inner picture of the relational, ordinal, hierarchical, conditional, and communicational structures within the system (Grochowiak & Castella, 2002). By that process an initial image of the situation is created. At this stage important information is revealed due to the placement of the representatives or symbols (especially distance and viewing direction) with respect to the different roles of the representatives within the system.

Additionally, working with representatives involves asking them about their top-of-mind thoughts and body emotions. The (trained) facilitator usually intervenes with gestures, ritual sentences, the rearrangement of representatives, or the testing of hypothetical constellations (Sparrer, 2007) . This continues until the situation has improved for the representatives positioned in the constellation and a final image, or sometimes also called the “solution image” has evolved. In a constellation with representatives the client may finally takes his/her own role in the constellation in order to perceive the solution himself/herself (Kopp & Martinuzzi, 2013).

The systemic constellations with persons as representatives are based on a phenomenon called “systemic resonance” and “representative perception.” This means that representatives (being external persons to the client's system) behave “in resonance” to the relation-structures of a certain constellation-system. A certain position in a constellation causes specific body sensations which change in accordance as soon as the positioning is modified (Varga von Kibed & Sparrer, 2011). This use of body sensation in relation to a special position taken in a system is specific to the systemic constellation and in contrast to other methods, such as social network analysis (Freeman, 2004), that are used in organization/stakeholder analyses. The latter describes actors and their relationships in social networks by means of nodes and ties, without considering body sensations as a source of information. Thus as Kopp and Martinuzzi (2013) put it “Systemic Constellation is a method that simultaneously enables emotional, affective and cognitive experiencing and learning as an individual person and as a group” (p. 197).

For the purpose of our research, we define a systemic constellation as a method to abstract and visualize social systems and structures. It involves (a) a client's inner picture (for example the project manager or the project owner) of the current project stakeholder situation related to an issue; (b) a focus on dynamics within the stakeholder system relevant for the issue; and (c) the opportunity to simulate movements of stakeholders to generate insights about possible solution strategies regarding the issue under consideration.

Research Method

In order to identify the strengths and limitations of the systemic constellation method in a project stakeholder analysis, we carried out a single case study in a focus group workshop for researchers and practitioners. A systemic constellation expert facilitated the session in which a project manager applied the method on her project. Afterwards, reflections were discussed among the focus group participants. Two weeks later a follow-up group dialogue took place.

In line with Morgan (1997), the aim of the focus group was to provide different perceptions on the research topic (the potentials and limitations of a systemic constellation for a project stakeholder analysis) at hand by involving different (types of) participants in a facilitated setting. The setting consisted of a demonstration of a systemic constellation on a case; the participation as representative or observer of the systemic constellation; and the discussion of the method beyond the case. In order to provide different perceptions nine practitioners, three project management expert colleagues, and a systemic constellation expert participated. In addition, five researchers of the research project observed the systemic constellation and the following discussion—and took field notes.

The case study concerned a project on developing a new branding strategy for a Danish municipality. The project manager was challenged due to a lack of willingness of some of the stakeholders to engage in the project.

Systemic Constellation Process Design

We applied a version of the system constellation method offered by Sachs-Schaffer et al. (2007) and Sachs-Schaffer (2009). Brigitte Sachs-Schaffer herself participated as the systemic constellation expert who facilitated the systemic constellation. It was a form of a systemic constellation in which the representatives knew what they were representing.

The focus group session lasted four hours and consisted of these steps:

  • (1) Warm-up
  • (2) Systemic interview
  • (3) Selection of representatives
  • (4) Initial constellation
  • (5) Intermediate constellations
  • (6) Final constellation
  • (7) De-briefing of case

Two weeks later

  • (8) Follow-up dialogue (for the project manager of the case, the systemic constellation expert, and two of the researchers)

In addition, the method systemic constellation was discussed by the focus group participants after the de-briefing as part of the research design.

Systemic Constellation Process Experiences

Concerning (1) Warm-up:
The facilitator guided the 17 participants through a 30 minute warm-up exercise in order to make them familiar with core characteristics of the method, including body sensations related to physical distance of other persons versus closeness and related to feelings from closing the eyes and turning the consciousness to the inner voice instead of the outside world. The warmup took place as planned by the facilitator, and the participants willingly took part in it.

Concerning (2) Systemic interview:
The facilitator interviewed 'the client', i.e. the project manager, on the challenging stakeholder- related situation at hand, while the other participants—and potential representatives—were listening. The participants were sitting on chairs in a half-circle in a big room, and the facilitator and the project manager were also sitting on chairs, closely together and facing each other so that the project manager could focus on the interview and not on the attending participants.

The problem situation of the project manager was that despite of huge efforts to involve many stakeholders in developing the brand and the branding strategy for the municipality, the results were not warmly welcomed by the City Council and other relevant people. The project manger's wish for the systemic constellation session was “To walk out the door and knowing how to involve people in stakeholder management with focus on our stakeholders”.

The project manager named the most important stakeholders, and they were written on a flip- over by the facilitator. Eight stakeholders were identified, including the project manager herself. In addition, two relevant concepts were identified: The project itself (for approval of the branding strategy) and the vision of the municipality (which was developed in a project that was accomplished in prior to the branding strategy project).

The participants were listening quietly and attentive to the interview session which lasted about 30 minutes. The facilitator had informed them that they were all potential representatives for the stakeholders and concepts identified. Afterwards, they were allowed to ask a few questions in order to be able to take on the roles as representatives.

Concerning (3) Selection of representatives:
The facilitator asked the project manager to choose representatives for the stakeholders and the two concepts identified among the participants. First, she selected someone to represent herself. Then she selected the other representatives. Each representative was given a piece of tape with the role they represented written on it, e.g. Project Manager and Project Owner.

Concerning (4) Initial constellation:
The project manager was asked to place the representatives one at the time on the floor so that the proximity between them was shown as well as the direction of their attention. The project manager placed the participants around the room to reflect her inner picture of the current stakeholder system. Every participant represented a stakeholder or a concept, and the way they stood in relation to each other (position and space) symbolized their mutual relationships as the project manager saw it. The facilitator encouraged the project manager to move the representatives until she clearly sensed in her body they had the right position. When this was the case the facilitator stated that this constellation now should be 'frozen' as 'the initial constellation' (and photos were taken and the positions of all participants were documented on a flip-chart by one of the observing researchers).

The initial constellation was characterized by the fact that many of the representatives were placed far away from each other and some of them stood back to back.

Initial constellation

Figure 1: Initial constellation

The facilitator now asked each representative about their body sensations and feelings concerning their placement in the constellation. The project manager was not allowed to comment, only to listen. Some of the answers were:

  • - “I feel a little bit outside. I would like to have more influence. I'm feeling a little bit ignored.”
  • - “I feel excluded—except from the middle management.”
  • - “I feel under pressure.”

Then the facilitator asked each representative to point to the most important person or concept for this representative according to their sensing of the various parts in the systemic constellation. A participant who represented an external consultant said:

  • - “The most important 'stakeholder' for me is 'the project'.”

The facilitator then turned to 'the project' and asked for this representative's feeling and encouraged the project to say something to the project manager. The project said:

  • - “I feel confused. I want you to get this project on track.”

The facilitator encouraged the representative for the project manager to answer. This representative said:

  • - “I know it already! I believe in this project and I have my project group behind me. And I believe in the education and the cultural part. I feel comfortable!”

The facilitator walked the project manager through all the representatives and asked for their input. Afterward she asked the project manager to think about the initial constellation—and express her reflections and feelings. The project manager said:

  • - “I thought it would be easy to put people in the places but it's not! When they express how they feel it makes [my understanding] stronger.”

A characteristic of the initial constellation was that the project was placed in the middle and more of the stakeholders were focusing on the project. An implication was that the stakeholders didn't take notice of each other due to their main focus on the project. The project manager, however, i.e. the representative, had strong focus on the project owner, but no focus on the project. The project team members couldn't see the project because they were standing behind the project manager. Two city council groups were far away from both the project and the other stakeholders. They didn't see the project as they both looked in different directions. An open question for everybody in the constellation was: What is the focus of the city council?

Concerning (5) Intermediate constellations:
In the next step, the facilitator invited two extra stakeholders (citizens and companies of the municipality) into the constellation and asked the project manager and various representatives whether this made any differences for them. Afterwards, various moves were made, i.e. more intermediate constellations, as the facilitator asked the representatives to move and change places.

A characteristic of the intermediate constellations was that the focus of the representatives changed as more stakeholders were introduced. The project manager realized that all stakeholders needed to see the vision and to be involved. She further agreed that the new stakeholders were important—and that they were missing in the initial constellation.

Concerning (6) Final constellation:
The fourth constellation became the final constellation. The facilitator asked the project manager to step in on 'her own position', i.e. instead of the person representing her. She was then asked to feel inside and comment. She said:

  • - “I feel the project owner is a little bit far away.”

Last adjustments were made so that the project manager felt comfortable with the situation.

Hereafter the facilitator asked all the participants to reflect and comment.

A characteristic of the final constellation was that the representatives formed a circle and that everybody focused on everything simultaneously. From being fragmented in the initial constellation all now had a common focus. In the end of this step the project manager said she was surprised how the input and comments gave her new perspectives on the project. It was also clear that those stakeholders she did not pay attention to became really important ones as they had relations to some of the other stakeholders.

Final constellation

Figure 2: Final constellation

Concerning (7) Debriefing of case:
When the final constellation had been investigated, the facilitator asked all the representatives to 'step out' of their roles and 'become themselves' again. They were now placed in a circle of chairs and asked to give pieces of advice to the project manager based on their own reflections and experiences. The project manager was not allowed to comment but just to listen and assess for herself the value of each comment. Examples of comments:

  • - “Communication with all stakeholders is needed.”
  • - “A stronger involvement of the city council groups is necessary.”
  • - “The consultancy was very close to the project owner. This seemed too close. The consultants should also focus on the project manager and other stakeholders.”

Concerning (8) Follow-up dialogue (two weeks later):
The project manager, the facilitator, and two of the researchers participated in the follow-up dialogue which took place as a Skype meeting. The purpose of the dialogue was to 'translate' and integrate the lessons learned from the systemic constellation. The project manager had already done a number of things differently in her project management activities as a result of the systemic constellation session. In addition, she had discussed the session with her boss. He could easily follow the lessons learned and agreed on them. Afterwards, they changed the way they approached some of the stakeholders. An example is that they made a dialogue round, where the project manager and the external consultant as a team visited the heads of the political groups within the city council on an individual face-to-face basis. Hereby they were able to talk directly with everybody about their requirements, wishes, ideas, and concerns—and in the end make a proposal that all city council members would approve.

Discussion and Conclusion

The stakeholder concept as well as stakeholders analysis have been around as bits and pieces in various theoretical fields since the 1960s—and with a coherent framework since Freeman's contribution to strategic management in 1984.

Standing on the shoulders of a number of relevant giants, we claim that moving the field forward requires finding ways whereby project stakeholder analysis can provide the project representatives with an even richer basis for understanding the stakeholders. The systemic constellation method, which originally was developed within the field of family therapy but now is used in general management as well as conflict management seems to have potentials for advancing the field.

A similarity between classical project stakeholder analysis and the systemic constellation method (in our chosen version) is that they are both issue-driven, meaning that the focus in the analysis is on a certain challenge at a specific point in time. This approach makes it possible to reduce the analytical complexity and stay focused, instead of trying to incorporate all details, issues, and project phases in one picture, as may be the risk when intuitively talking about project stakeholders (as we have seen done by inexperienced or untrained project managers) as if these and their interests and attributes (e.g. power and legitimacy) were stable across a long time span and various issues. This issue-specificity makes the systemic constellation method suitable for project stakeholder analysis. It also relates back to Freeman (1984), Savage et al. (1991) and Eskerod and Jepsen (2013) who all point to the necessity of an issue-driven analysis.

Identification of stakeholders relevant for the issue discussed takes place in both classical project stakeholder analysis and in a systemic constellation. Project stakeholder management literature suggests various methods for identification, e.g. brainstorming, using general checklists, or using stakeholder lists of similar projects. In the systemic constellation method relevant stakeholders are identified by 'the client' during the systemic interview (or during the constellation process). The system of stakeholders is socially constructed by the client as the facilitator undertakes a neutral role, not forcing any stakeholders on the client (even though suggestions can be broad in). A strength is that the client focuses on stakeholders that are 'top of mind' instead of being paralyzed by the complexity of all thinkable stakeholders. A limitation is that the impact of the constellation rests on the client's ability to identify the relevant stakeholders for the issue at hand.

Other strengths of systemic constellation are that it sees the stakeholder landscape as systemic and not consisting of dyadic relationships in a project-centric approach. The use of body sensation and not only rational thinking is another strength. Finally, the method is well-suited for revealing the inner picture and hereby unspoken assumptions and understandings of the client that would have been difficult to reveal by classical reasoning.

Limitations of the method are that it is resource demanding (as a group of people is needed as representatives) and it demands a well-trained facilitator.

In sum, however, we claim that our research has demonstrated that the systemic constellation method has great potential for advancing project stakeholder analysis while at the same time benefitting from the outlook from the shoulders of the giants.


This paper is part of a research project Rethinking Project Stakeholder Management, which is partly funded by Project Management Institute in 2012-2014. The authors wish to acknowledge the financial support of PMI and to thank all the participants in the focus group workshop presented in the paper.


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Dr. Pernille Eskerod is Professor at the Department of Leadership and Corporate Strategy, University of Southern Denmark. Here she is also Academic Director of a Professional Master's Program in Project Management. She has more than 20 years of research and teaching experience, and she has a broad international network. In 2010, Pernille Eskerod was Visiting Professor at Stevens Institute of Technology, NJ, US, for six months and in 2013–2014, she was Visiting Professor for 12 months at WU - Vienna University of Economics and Business. She is also a faculty member at the WU Professional MBA Program: Project Management. Her current research interests are stakeholder management and change management. In 2013, she published Project Stakeholder Management (a Gower imprint) with co-author Anna Lund Jepsen. The book was on Gower's Top 20 bestseller list the first half of 2013.

Dr. Martina Huemann is Professor at the WU Vienna University of Economics and Business where she heads the Project Management Group in the Department of Strategy and Innovation and is the Academic Director of the Professional MBA Program: Project Management. Dr. Huemann has published widely in the fields of human resource management and project management. Her current research focuses on stakeholder management, human resource management in project-oriented organizations, and sustainable development and project management. Dr. Huemann is Associate Editor of the International Journal of Project Management. She has served on the Research Management Board of the International Project Management Association and is currently a member of the Academic Member Advisory Group at PMI. She is also co-founder of enable2change, a network of independent consultants and thinkers which provides expertise to managers and organizations when implementing strategies and changes for better performance and sustainable development.

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