Establishing project portfolio management

an exploratory analysis of the influence of internal stakeholders' interactions


Dr. Daniel Jonas2 (Consultant)
[email protected]

Prof. Dr. Hans Georg Gemünden1 (Chair for Technology and Innovation Management)
[email protected]

1 Berlin Institute of Technology, 2 Campana & Schott


Project portfolio management (PPM) can be seen as a management innovation that in many firms is still to be further established and professionalized. Stakeholder behavior and stakeholder management are key success factors for projects, and therefore, also for portfolios of projects and their management. Further, stakeholder management must not only focus on single stakeholders but rather needs to account for stakeholders influencing each other in a fairly complex interaction of multiple and potentially interdependent stakeholders. However, there is still surprisingly little research on organizational stakeholder behavior in general and literally none in the realm of PPM.

In this paper, we attempt to contribute to closing this research gap by conducting a quantitative study on internal key stakeholders' engagement in the PPM process. Our study is based on a survey with 223 project portfolios in medium- to large-sized firms in Austria, Germany, and Switzerland. In the first step, we investigate how much stakeholders actually engage in the three phases of the PPM process compared to expectations stemming from project portfolio management guidelines, standards, and especially role descriptions. Second, we analyze the interdependencies between the extent of stakeholder engagement and identify patterns of stakeholder behavior.

Our results show that from guidelines and standards expected stakeholders, in fact, show the relatively highest engagement in the respective project portfolio management phase, i.e., senior management in portfolio structuring, mid-level line management in resource management, and project portfolio managers in portfolio steering. However, absolute values of the intensity of engagement, especially for senior management and project portfolio managers, are surprisingly low. Also, the average value for role clarity indicating PPM maturity shows a lot of room for further professionalization.

The large number of correlations support that project portfolio management is a cooperative and distributed process that involves several stakeholders. Stakeholders consistently increasing or decreasing their engagement across all phases indicate that this decision is taken with respect to the whole portfolio and not single management phases. Moreover, in immature PPM systems and within a phase, senior management displaces line management in resource management and project portfolio managers in portfolio steering. In contrast, in PPM systems with high maturity, senior management focuses on strategic tasks and delegates operative tasks to those with the respective core competences. Further, in immature systems, the lack of project portfolio management capability is compensated by the other stakeholders, e.g., firefighting by senior managers in case of deviations. In well-established PPM systems, project portfolio managers bundle the operative portfolio management tasks and take over from line and project managers. Finally, we found that it is also crucial to generate the buy-in of line management to successfully establish PPM systems, since line managers are the interface between strategy and operations “owning” the resources.

Our findings contribute in three ways. First, they contribute to project portfolio management research as our study helps to explain stakeholders' relevance in PPM. Second, we further integrate stakeholder theory with a highly relevant management approach, i.e., project portfolio management, and therefore, foster the explanatory value and relevance of stakeholder theory. Finally, the current findings contribute to practice by enabling managers to deal with stakeholders more effectively through increased understanding of stakeholder behavior and its consequences.

Keywords: project portfolio management; project portfolio stakeholders; stakeholder management; stakeholder theory; stakeholder behavior


The projectification of an increasing fraction of companies' activities has been and still is an ongoing development (Dahlgren & Söderlund, 2010; Lundin, 2011). Therefore, the generally expected advantage in controllability for single projects comes along with a loss of transparency, and hence, effectiveness of the overall project landscape (Elonen & Artto, 2003). Thus, project management researchers and professionals have been developing and have started to introduce a new management approach to cope with these effects and to account for the growing need for a structured and proactive management of the project landscape. Project portfolio management (PPM) can be seen as this kind of required management innovation (Jonas, 2010; Hamel, 2006), that is, becoming a key competence for companies handling numerous projects simultaneously (Killen, Hunt, & Kleinschmidt, 2008; Martinsuo & Lehtonen, 2007; Dietrich & Lehtonen, 2005).

Establishing PPM in a firm's active management system is a diffusion process, which comprises that the relevant parties know, understand, have a positive attitude toward, and apply the new management approach (Twiss, 1976). This means that a new thinking needs to be established in senior management, who drive the implementation of a new management system. New thinking needs to be established also in all other involved or affected parties. Furthermore, this new thinking needs to be lived by those key players, so that the new management approach can be successfully implemented and contribute to the firm's success. Hamel (2006) makes it even clearer when he demands the following questions to be answered in order to successfully implement a new management process: Who are the owners of the existing process? Who has the power to change the process? Who are the customers of it? And who will be directly involved in the process?

Hence, stakeholders (i.e., those who can affect or are affected by a new management approach) (Freeman, 1984) play a crucial role in successfully implementing management innovation. Professional and academic management literature support this finding in a more general context as it has become a common view that stakeholder management and favorable performance are strongly connected (Donaldson & Preston, 1995). Research on programs of projects as a specific type of project portfolio and research on project portfolios in general indicate that stakeholders and their management are key success factors for the management of project portfolios (Lycett, Rassau, & Danson, 2004; Levine, 2005).

Hamel's (2006) questions highlight especially internal stakeholders (i.e., those who are directly involved in or affected by a management innovation. The key roles of the PPM process, which internal stakeholders may be assigned to, have already been named by Jonas (2010) with senior management, mid-level line management, project portfolio managers, and project managers. However, most of PPM literature is predominantly concerned with processes, tasks, and tools of PPM. So far, no contribution has been made toward understanding key stakeholders, their behavior with respect to PPM, and its impact on success.

Following Levine (2005), who emphasizes the importance that the right stakeholders are involved in the right process steps, Aaltonen and Kujala (2010), who observed different stakeholder salience in different project phases, and considering that PPM is a distributed management process involving stakeholders with the aforementioned roles, we formulate our first research question:

Q1: To what extent do the different stakeholders engage in the constituent phases of the PPM process, and how does this compare with the defined ideal target state?

Stakeholder theory and research add a network perspective by pointing out that the behavior of stakeholders is not independent but rather the result of mutual influence and interactions (Frooman, 1999; Rowley, 1997; Neville & Menguc, 2006). Further, for example, on project level Crawford, Cooke-Davies, Hobbs, Labuschagne, Remington, and Chen (2008) showed that those who are accountable for projects need to collaborate with numerous key stakeholders (Aubry, Hobbs, Müller, & Blomquist, 2010). And PPM can be described as a distributed and collaborative process (Jonas, 2010; Raes, Heijltjes, Glunk, & Roe, 2011). Therefore, we investigate in a second step:

Q2: How does the intensity of one stakeholder's engagement in a defined PPM phase correlate with his or her engagement or that of others in the various phases?

Talking of phases here is less to be understood as sequentially ordered phases but rather in the sense of fields of activity and processes, which can be overlapping or even parallel and are, recurring. Finally, based on answers to these two questions, we derive implications on what this means for further establishing project portfolio management more successfully and increasing PPM maturity.

For our analyses, we use data from a large sample of project portfolios in Austrian, German, and Swiss firms. In the first step, we perform a descriptive analysis, which is followed by the correlations in a second step. The contributions of the present study are threefold. First, we contribute to PPM research as our study helps to explain stakeholders' relevance in project portfolio management, e.g., providing transparency on deviations of stakeholder engagement from an ideal target state of preferably high PPM maturity and adding a network perspective. Second, we contribute to stakeholder theory by applying it to real world problems (Freeman & McVea, 2001), integrating it with other management approaches and therefore fostering its explanatory value and relevance. Finally, the findings of our study contribute to management practice by enabling managers to deal with stakeholders more effectively through a better understanding of stakeholder behavior and its consequences. Thus, our findings also give guidance for further establishing and professionalizing PPM.

Theoretical Background and Hypotheses

Project Portfolio Management

Even though PPM can be seen as a management innovation, the research field of project portfolio management is not as new as it seems. The roots of the more general ideas behind portfolio management date back more than half a century in different management research areas, such as finance (Markowitz, 1952, 1991) and, somewhat later, predominantly innovation management (Twiss, 1976; Hobbs, 2012). Soon after the aforementioned boom of (single) project management, the project portfolio management took off in popularity across many research agendas in the late 1990s (e.g., Cooper, Edgett, & Kleinschmidt, 1999, 2001). Nowadays, an increasing number of scholars are tackling a wider project perspective on the higher-level control mechanisms across multiple projects (Artto, Martinsuo, Gemünden, & Murtoaro, 2009), such as project portfolios (Cooper & Edgett, 2003; Engwall & Jerbrant, 2003; Hendriks, Voeten, & Kroep, 1999). Having defined the purpose of project portfolio management, its objectives, and success criteria, scholars have started researching the antecedents and factors that drive successful portfolios predominantly in the field of new product development (NPD).

Adopted from Cooper et al.'s (2001) objectives for NPD project portfolios, project portfolio success in general can be defined along four distinctive dimensions. First, the efficiency of the portfolio's projects, which includes the average single project success components that have been defined and used in a familiar triangle: cost, schedule, and quality (Gardiner & Stewart, 2000; Pinto & Prescott, 1990) enriched by the fulfillment of customer needs and requirements (Griffin & Page, 1996; Lechler & Dvir, 2010; Shenhar, Dvir, Levy, & Maltz, 2001). Second, the dimension synergies covers the additional value that is generated due to cross-project coordination, which supposedly exceeds the value of the sum of the contributions delivered by the independently managed projects of a portfolio; this additional value is not obtainable by any of the projects alone (Platje, Seidel, & Wadman, 1994). Third, the dimension strategic fit of a portfolio reflects the internal strategic fit perspective (Carmeli, Gelbard, & Gefen, 2010; Miller, 1996; Rivkin, 2000; Siggelkow, 2002) that refers to the alignment of project objectives and the resource allocation according to the project's strategic relevance (Hendriks et al., 1999; Kaplan & Norton, 2005; Meskendahl, 2010). Fourth, the dimension portfolio balance refers to the adjustment along four perspectives innovation (incremental vs. radical), market (new vs. old areas of application), finance (high vs. low project risks), and learning (use of new vs. existing technologies) (e.g., Chao & Kavadias, 2008; Chao, Kavadias, & Gaimon, 2009).

A project portfolio has been defined as a group of projects that compete for scarce resources under the sponsorship of a particular organization (Archer & Ghasemzadeh, 1999; Dye & Pennypacker, 2002). Project portfolio management accordingly has been defined as the “managerial activities that relate to the initial screening, selection and prioritization of project proposals, the concurrent reprioritization of projects in the portfolio, and the allocation and reallocation of resources to projects according to priority” (Blichfeldt & Eskerod, 2008, p. 358). Following this definition and based on our process-oriented understanding of project portfolio management, we structure the scope of the managerial activities for the purpose of our exploration in three generic and recursive phases: portfolio structuring, resource management, and portfolio steering. In general, firms might not necessarily accomplish all phases to the same extent and quality, but taken together, such a process model provides a comprehensive understanding and differentiated view of the scope of activities and research fields that relate to project portfolio management.

(1) Portfolio structuring aims for strategic orientation among large project landscapes and is meant to be conducted at recurrent intervals in alignment with the firm's (e.g., annual) strategic planning cycles (Platje et al., 1994). All managerial activities that are initially undertaken to set up a target portfolio from a given business strategy (Meskendahl, 2010), e.g., strategic portfolio planning, evaluation of project proposals, and project selection, are covered by portfolio structuring.

(2) Resource management in this context exclusively refers to resource management activities in the environment of project landscapes (Elonen & Artto, 2003; Hendriks et al., 1999; Martinsuo & Lehtonen, 2007). Resource management aims for an effective and efficient allocation of project resources across the whole portfolio by managerial activities, such as cross-project resource planning, and project resource approvals (Arvidsson, 2009; Blichfeldt & Eskerod, 2008). It links the portfolio structuring phase in terms of an initial recurrent resource allocation with the portfolio steering phase in terms of a permanent reactive re-allocation.

(3) Portfolio steering activities refer to gathering information for a continuous monitoring of the strategic alignment, the development of corrective measures in case of deviations from the target portfolio, the coordination of projects across organizational units to identify project synergies, and the detection and abortion of obsolete projects (Loch & Kavadias, 2002; Zirger & Hartley, 1996). Hence, it aims at enhancing a company's adaptive capacity and flexibility regarding portfolio internal and external changes that appear on short notice during a planning period (Geraldi, 2008, 2009; Spillecke, 2006). Therefore, portfolio steering comprises all continuous activities for the permanent co-ordination of the portfolio (Müller, Martinsuo, & Blomquist, 2008).

Stakeholder Theory and Management

“Stakeholder theory is a theory of organizational management and ethics.” (Phillips, Freeman, & Wicks, 2003, p. 480) The basic assumption of stakeholder theory is that a firm, represented by its management, has relationships with many constituent groups of individuals in the firm and in its external environment, and that those groups play a vital role in the firm's success, but also that the interests of all (legitimate) stakeholders are of intrinsic value (Clarkson, 1995; Donaldson & Preston, 1995; Freeman, 1984).

Stakeholder research is a relatively young research field. However, the stakeholder concept—originating from strategic management—has been applied to other research fields, including project management (first by Cleland, 1986). In addition, scholars in program management have increasingly advocated for integrating the idea of stakeholder theory (Lycett et al., 2004), whereas extant literature is mostly practitioner-oriented and research (especially empirical research) is still relatively scarce.

For project portfolio management, which is closely related to program management, standard literature, and guidelines implicitly account for the relevance of stakeholders, as many at least mention or even briefly cover aspects of stakeholder management (e.g., Thiry, 2007). But stakeholders have received even less attention in project portfolio management than in program management. Like in general management stakeholder research—where scholars have focused on identifying stakeholders that may influence the organization's decision making, analyzing what types of claims they have, and categorizing stakeholders (e.g., Mitchell, Agle, & Wood, 1997)—Jonas (2010) can be seen as a first step with identifying the key roles in the PPM process and assigning their targeted responsibilities. However, this is only a first step and does not account for Frooman's (1999) and Lycett et al.'s (2004) statement that we must understand stakeholder behavior better to be able to manage stakeholders effectively. Moreover, also in general and project management only, a very limited number of scholars have tackled aspects of stakeholder behavior explicitly, so far (Frooman, 1999; Frooman & Murrell, 2005, 2003; Hendry, 2005; Tsai, Yeh, Wu, & Huang, 2005; project management: Aaltonen, Kujala, & Oijala, 2008; Aaltonen & Kujala, 2010), and few scholars have implicitly covered behavioral aspects like Mitchell et al. (1997) with their categorization of stakeholder salience.

Some further researchers have added relevant aspects to general research on stakeholder behavior. For example, Rowley and Moldoveanu (2003) contribute on the mobilization of stakeholder groups. They propose that besides interest-based action, also the identity of a stakeholder can vary the intensity of stakeholder action. This can be related to the defined roles in PPM and how much known, accepted, and lived they are; i.e. how much internal stakeholders identify themselves with their assigned roles in PPM.

With respect to the actual behavior of stakeholders and connected interactions, Frooman (1999) posits that stakeholders can influence other stakeholders and therefore indirectly influence the organization. Rowley (1997) emphasized this view of mutual influence by adding a network perspective. He proposed that the position of stakeholders in the network can explain their behavior. And finally, Neville and Menguc (2006) also address the interactions between stakeholders and derive implications on their ability to influence.

Scholars in stakeholder research have developed various conceptualizations and definitions of stakeholders (an overview: Mitchell et al., 1997). However, Freeman's (1984) pioneer work definition, that a stakeholder is “any group or individual who can affect or is affected by the achievement of the organization's objectives” (p. 46; similar wording in Freeman, Harrisson, Wicks, Parmar, & De Colle, 2010), is still widely used and the basis for many other definitions. Thus, drawing on stakeholder theory, we define project portfolio stakeholders as any group or individual in a relationship with a project portfolio, so that the group or individual can affect or is affected by the achievement of the portfolio's objectives (similar definition for program management in Project Management Institute, 2006).

Referring to Freeman's (1984) definition, Goodpaster (1991) noted that it implies the notion of two types of stakeholders: strategic (affecting) and moral (being affected). Further, Freeman (1984) differentiated with respect to organizational aspects between firm internal and external stakeholders.

The focus of this paper is on strategic stakeholders, i.e., those affecting project portfolios, whilst knowing that moral stakeholders can also become strategic over time (Goodpaster, 1991) and explicitly acknowledging that from a normative perspective management actions should follow ethical guidelines and also serve moral stakeholders (Freeman, Harrison, & Wicks, 2007). Further, we focus on those strategic stakeholders who are portfolio-internal, as they build the core of PPM and we believe them as such to be a major source of influence with respect to project portfolio success. Thus, we define four strategic internal stakeholders for PPM.

(1) Senior management. According to upper echelons research, senior managers act as key decision makers of an organization (Carpenter, Geletkanycz, & Sanders, 2004; Gallén, 2009), and they are supposed to surmount barriers regarding change by utilizing hierarchical potential (Rost, Hölzle, & Gemünden, 2007; Witte, 1977). In PPM context, senior management has to decide about processes and standards for the overall project organization in general and the prioritization, selection, and evaluation mechanisms. Top-level managers must approve the target portfolio from a strategic perspective and in case of perceived deviations or fundamental conflict situations; they are to deliver timely decisions for re-allocation of resources or re-prioritization of projects. Therefore, under ideal conditions and with respect to the process-oriented understanding of PPM, the major phase for senior management engagement is the portfolio structuring phase.

(2) Mid-level line management. The middle management comprises those stakeholders that are located below senior management, but not necessarily above (and increasingly more often alongside) project leaders. However, it is not a manager's position in the hierarchy of organizational structure alone that characterizes middle management; their easy access to top management in combination with their knowledge of operations makes them unique (Raes et al., 2011; Wooldridge, Schmid, & Floyd, 2008). Mid-level line managers in their different forms as general line managers or functional line managers play a predominant role in project portfolio management processes. In a traditional matrix environment, they can be considered as resource owners that are responsible for an effective and efficient assignment of departmental employees (Platje et al., 1994). They act decentralized and are assumed to optimize the objectives of an organizational subsystem such as their department or function. Further, they are in charge of leading lower organizational levels, they are responsible for consistent and reliable resource commitments and project execution, and they are supposed to act as brokers and mediators between the business strategy and daily business (Shi, Markoczy, & Dess, 2009). Thus, under ideal conditions and with respect to the process-oriented understanding of PPM the major phase for line management engagement is the resource management phase.

(3) Project portfolio managers. Alongside the traditional line management, the new managerial role of the project portfolio manager evolves. This role is supposed to be critical in planning and controlling complex project landscapes and implementing project portfolio management practices (Jonas, 2010). The project portfolio manager's function aims for a cross-project coordination of multiple projects within one organization and can be classified under the aforementioned middle management. However, in terms of their particular objectives, depending on their assigned responsibilities, project portfolio managers can either be more administrative personnel or be able to shape the company's future through their influence, or somewhere in-between (Blomquist & Müller, 2006; Gemünden, Dammer, & Jonas, 2008). We define the project portfolio manager as a centralized middle management coordination unit that supports senior management with its specialized knowledge about project portfolio practices (Dillard & Nissen, 2007). Under ideal conditions and with respect to the process-oriented understanding of PPM, the major phase for project portfolio managers' engagement is supposed to be the third phase of portfolio steering.

(4) Project managers. The most obvious stakeholders, project managers, are without any doubt seen as highly important to the project portfolio. They are accountable for their individual project success and represent their team and the internal or external project customer in the portfolio (Anantatmula, 2008; Geoghegan & Dulewicz, 2008). For example, coping with traditional resource conflicts between projects and between line and project managers in matrix organizations remains a challenging issue on the portfolio level. In contrast to the other three strategic internal stakeholders, project managers have no major phase for their engagement in the PPM process. Instead, they contribute to all three phases in a different manner. Regarding the portfolio structuring, they are supposed to reach the agreed on project objectives in order to realize the planned project value. With respect to the resource management phase, they must adhere to given resource commitments by robust project planning and lead to future competence development. With respect to the steering phase, they are reliable for a continuous delivery of reliable and timely project status information to allow for cross-project optimization and mutual collaboration across project borders.

As each of these stakeholders is supposed to comply with his or her specific role with respect to the PPM process, and in order to explore the stakeholder engagement in PPM, one must consider the degree to which the stakeholder roles in the management system are ambiguous and how clear the distribution of task conduction within the system is. “Role clarity has been explored in literally hundreds of occupational stress studies.” (Bliese & Castro, 2000, p. 66) Nonetheless, we use role clarity as a dichotomous trait of the management system. In contrast to the role clarity of a single managerial role, in the present exploration, it stands for the overall clarity across the roles of all internal stakeholders and is assumed to develop from low to high over time. Stakeholders are assumed to be more effective when they understand what needs to be done, whereas role ambiguity is supposed to decrease performance (Hall, 2008; Tubre & Collins, 2000). Onyemah (2008) stresses an inverted-U shaped relationship where moderate levels of role ambiguity are associated with high performance, whereas low and high levels are associated with low performance. In the PPM context, unclear roles might lead to unintended meddling into the project portfolio management process or to negative effects through well-intentioned but wrong interventions. For example, if senior management invests much personal time to portfolio steering and accelerates selected projects outside the official prioritization processes and rules, this might be contra-productive. Therefore, an increased stakeholder engagement can unfold its (positive) success impact only if the higher engagement is also invested in the right process phase.

In the narrow PPM context, the questions regarding role clarity aim for both formal differentiated role descriptions and actually practiced behavior, so that each task is carried out exclusively by the intended stakeholder. This implies clear definitions of the objectives and authorities within the project portfolio management process and therefore role clarity can also be understood as one potential indicator for the degree of PPM maturity.


Based on these findings from PPM and general stakeholder research, in this study we investigate the following hypotheses for project portfolio management. PPM is a relatively young management innovation and has been established in firms to a different extent and in various forms. However, we still think that PPM practices largely comply with above discussed understanding of the PPM process and that stakeholders mostly focus their engagement in the “right” process phase:

H1: The intensity of stakeholders' engagement is aligned with what we expect from definitions in PPM guidelines and role descriptions (i.e., highest engagement in portfolio structuring: senior management; highest engagement in resource management: line management; highest engagement in portfolio steering: project portfolio managers).

Second, because stakeholders interact with each other, we argue that

H2: The intensity of stakeholders' engagement depends on the one of other stakeholders.

And, third, we think that

H3: The interrelationship between stakeholders' engagement is altered with increasing PPM maturity, i.e. role clarity. Hence, we use stakeholder theory to explain the differences between firms with PPM of low and high maturity.

Sampling and Measures

To explore stakeholder engagement, we used a cross-sectional sample of 223 project portfolios from firms in Austria, Germany, and Switzerland. Data were collected as part of a study investigating various issues of managing project portfolios. To ensure that participants had an understanding of our research topic, we only contacted firms with project portfolios of at least 20 simultaneous projects. For the study, 1,455 managers were contacted via direct mailing, explaining the objectives, individual returns, and procedures of the study. Follow-up phone calls were conducted and interested managers were then interviewed by phone in order to verify that they met the participation requirements. In particular, we confirmed that the firms' project portfolio size and that the managers' access to the required informants was sufficient. Our informants were those managers who are supposed to be operatively involved in the project portfolio management processes. They had diverse titles such as project portfolio manager, head of project management office, department manager, or head of business unit. In total, we received 426 questionnaires, corresponding to a response rate of 29%. Thereof 209 questionnaires were from senior management informants and 217 from portfolio manager informants. For our analysis, we refer only to the sample of fully completed questionnaires from portfolio manager informants and excluded questionnaires with missing values in our focal constructs. This has led to a total sample size of 215 valid cases. After data processing, we conducted a conference to discuss and validate our findings with nearly 100 experts from 62 firms that participated in our study.

On average, a portfolio comprised 137 projects with an overall yearly budget of €174 million. With one third of the hundred largest corporations in Austria, Germany, and Switzerland taking part in our study, the sample can be considered as a representative cross-section of medium- and large-sized companies. Of the firms analyzed in our study, 33% have less than 500 employees, 25% have between 500 and 2000 employees, and 42% have more than 2000 employees. Furthermore, the sample shows a reasonable spread across industries: machinery (13%), insurance (13%), electronics (12%), automotive (11%), IT/telecommunications (11%), banking (10%), services (10%), pharmaceuticals (5%), and others (15%).

For our analyses, we measure the intensity of engagement of each of the four stakeholders in each of the three PPM phases. Additionally, we measure role clarity as an indicator for PPM maturity.

To measure role clarity within the project portfolios in our study, we developed an appropriate multi-item scale based on insights from literature review, our workshops, and questionnaire pre-tests (Hair, Anderson, Tatham, & Black, 2006). The items we used for measuring were anchored from 1 (“strongly disagree”) to 7 (“strongly agree”). For our role clarity scale (α = .84), we specified three items for our construct, which indicate the overall role clarity across all involved internal stakeholders. The appendix shows the applied items.

Because large-scale empirical research with project portfolios and stakeholders as unit of analysis is scarce, we found no well-established scales that we could use to measure stakeholder engagement with respect to our focal questions. Therefore, we developed a two-dimensional 6 × 9 question-matrix consisting of six items for the different stakeholders (horizontal) and nine items for the different managerial activities in the project portfolio management process (vertical) as displayed in Figure 1 (marks are exemplary).

6 × 9 question-matrix

Figure 1: 6 × 9 question-matrix.

Thereby, each of the three phases of the PPM process was represented by three activity items (portfolio structuring: items 1–3, resource management: items 4–6, portfolio steering: items 7–9). We asked our informants to mark with a cross who in the organization is mainly responsible for the nine chosen activities; multiple responses were allowed. For our analysis, we aggregated the answers along the three PPM phases and our four generic stakeholders as described in the following.

Senior management aggregates the board of directors (X = number of marks per phase) and division heads (Y = number of marks per phase). In addition, project portfolio managers aggregate multi-project coordinator (X) as well as project management office (Y). The respective scales for the intensity of engagement (IoE1) of these two stakeholders are derived applying the following scheme, in order to get the one final scale from 1 (no engagement) to 7 (high engagement) per stakeholder and phase.


In order to get the corresponding scales for the mid-level line management and project managers (IoE2), we used the marks for department head (X = number of marks per phase) and project leader (X), respectively. Then, we applied the following scheme to arrive at one final scale from 1 (no engagement) to 7 (high engagement) per stakeholder and PPM phase.


Altogether, this procedure has led to 12 constructs measuring the extent or intensity of engagement of each of the four stakeholders in each of the three PPM phases.

We derive our results from analyzing the intensity of engagement across the different stakeholders and across the different PPM process phases. In the first step, we clustered data about the intensity of engagement for each stakeholder in each phase in order to compare our theoretical PPM process with the actually practiced stakeholder behavior. Therefore, we classified values 1 (no activity at all), 2, and 3 as low engagement, values 4 and 5 as medium engagement, and values 6 and 7 as high stakeholder engagement. Results are displayed in Table 1.

In the second step, we analyzed pairwise correlations between the intensity of engagement of the stakeholders in the different process phases to explore their mutual interactions. Results are displayed in Table 2. In order to get a better understanding of these interactions, we split our sample using the median of role clarity (4.66), which resulted in one sample of 94 cases with low role clarity (< 4.66) and 121 cases with high role clarity (> = 4.66). In order to demonstrate the differences under these two different organizational conditions for all stakeholders across all PPM phases, we decided to visualize the significant correlation in the form of a series of net graphs displayed in Figure 2.


Table 1 provides accumulated values for the percentage of companies with stakeholders' intensity of engagement low, medium, high per PPM phase. Therefore, it provides an overview of the current situation of the firms in our sample. Consistently with our expectations, each stakeholder group has their main focus in a different PPM phase. Senior management dominates the portfolio structuring. In 20% of the examined firms, senior management shows high engagement for portfolio structuring (42% medium engagement). Line management leads the resource management (42% high engagement), and project portfolio managers tend to take over the portfolio steering (11% high engagement and 35% medium engagement). As expected, project managers do not drive any of our defined PPM phases, resulting in more than 75% low engagement in all three phases.

Table 1: Percentage of companies with stakeholders with defined intensity of engagement.

  Project Portfolio Management Phase
Intensity of engagement of stakeholders Portfolio Structuring Resource Management Portfolio Steering
Senior Management
High engagement 20% 2% 5%
Medium engagement 42% 24% 23%
Low engagement 38% 74% 72%
Line Management      
High engagement 11% 42% 8%
Medium engagement 18% 27% 10%
Low engagement 71% 31% 82%
Project Portfolio Managers      
High engagement 1% 2% 11%
Medium engagement 14% 8% 35%
Low engagement 85% 90% 54%
Project Managers      
High engagement 1% 9% 3%
Medium engagement 5% 16% 4%
Low engagement 94% 75% 93%

Table 2 provides the complete correlation matrix for all our variables including the descriptive statistics. Supporting the results shown in Table 1, mean values of intensity of stakeholder engagement in each phase reflect the expected assignment of a major phase for each of the first three stakeholders: Senior management dominates portfolio structuring with the highest mean in this phase of 4.13, mid-level line management dominates resource management (highest mean in this phase = 4.86), and project portfolio managers dominate portfolio steering (highest mean in this phase = 3.24).

Further, we see that role clarity positively correlates with project portfolio managers' engagement in the portfolio structuring and the portfolio steering phase, but negatively with senior management engagement in the portfolio steering phase.

Looking at the correlations of the intensities of engagement of the various stakeholders in the three phases, as expected, we find a relatively high number of correlations, which we visualized in Figure 2 in order to facilitate interpretation and to reduce complexity of Table 2. Circles represent the intensity of engagement of a specific stakeholder in a specific phase. Arrows represent correlations between two intensities of engagement. Negative correlations are marked with a “(-)”. Finally, in order to analyze our third hypothesis, we split the graphs for low and high role clarity.

In the following, we present the most relevant observations from Figure 2:

(1) For each stakeholder, we observe that his or her engagement correlates positively across all phases at low and high role clarity (except the correlation between resource management and portfolio steering for line management at high role clarity with p<.05).

(2) Senior management: Focusing on the interrelation within a phase, at low role clarity, we see that the intensity of senior management's engagement negatively correlates with line management in their major phase resource management and with project portfolio managers in their major phase portfolio steering.

(3) Project portfolio managers: At low role clarity, project portfolio managers' engagement in the portfolio steering phase negatively correlates with the intensity of all other stakeholders' engagement in this phase whereas at high role clarity, only the correlations with line management and project managers remain.

(4) Line management: At low role clarity, most correlations are with senior management and project managers, whereas at high role clarity correlations are mainly with project portfolio managers.

Table 2: Correlation matrix for intensity of engagement of different stakeholders.

Visualization of significant (p < .05) correlations of intensity of engagement for the different internal stakeholders under the condition of low and high role clarity

Figure 2: Visualization of significant (p < .05) correlations of intensity of engagement for the different internal stakeholders under the condition of low and high role clarity.


Looking at the descriptive results, the figures support our theoretical foundations of the project portfolio management process and expected focus of the intensity of respective stakeholders' engagement. Therefore, these findings also support hypothesis H1. However, the results for the assumed key activities for each of the examined stakeholder groups in the three phases are not as explicit as expected. For example, although senior management dominates in portfolio structuring, it shows surprisingly limited engagement in this strategically highly relevant phase (in 80% of all firms, only low to medium engagement). Furthermore, the high percentage of firms with low engagement of project portfolio managers in the resource management phase (90%) does not fit to the assumed importance of cross-project resource allocation. However, the limited engagement in this phase as well as the small percentage of firms with project portfolio managers being highly engaged in the portfolio steering (11%) can be explained at least partially by the fact that PPM in many firms is still being built up and has not been fully established yet. Based on our interpretation of role clarity as a measure for PPM maturity, a mean of 4.60, on a scale from 1 to 7, supports that there is room for further establishing and professionalizing PPM. This calls for further research on understanding the fact of limited establishment and on success factors for further establishing PPM. Moreover, knowing that PPM immaturity has a negative impact on success (role clarity: Hall, 2008; Tubre & Collins, 2000), our findings also translate into a managerial implication inducing a request for senior and line management to increase efforts to enact this new management system of PPM.

Even though our results do not support hypotheses H2 and H3 in general, for a large number of stakeholder engagement pairs our hypotheses, that stakeholders' intensity of engagement depends on each other (H2), and, that this dependency is moderated by role clarity as a measure of PPM maturity (H3), are supported by the results.

The large number of correlations and therefore interdependencies, reinforces the view of the PPM process as being a cooperative and distributed process (Jonas, 2010) and reflects that the internal key stakeholders of a project portfolio form a highly interdependent network (Rowley, 1997). The existence of both positive and negative correlations, we relate to stakeholder theory with Neville and Menguc's (2006) clusters of competing, complementary, and cooperative interactions. Positive correlations of stakeholders' intensity of engagement reflect cooperative or complementary behavior and negative correlations can be related to competing behavior. Therefore, also in the realm of PPM, we follow Rowley (1997) that successful stakeholder management cannot address stakeholders individually but rather must cope with the network structures among stakeholders and the interactions between them.

At the same time, the positive correlations within one role over all three phases show that stakeholders behave consistently with respect to the intensity of their engagement in the three phases of PPM for low as well as high role clarity. We describe this as intra-role-consistency of stakeholders' behavior. This suggests that stakeholders' choice to increase or reduce their engagement is made with respect to their role and the overall portfolio and not single process phases, whereas the extent of change in engagement varies. However, intra-role-consistency is in conflict with the confirmed major phases for the three internal key stakeholders senior management, line management, and project portfolio managers (H1). With increasing role clarity, stakeholders should rather increase their engagement focused on their major phases while maintaining or even decreasing their engagement in the other PPM phases.

At low role clarity the negative correlations of the intensity of senior management's engagement with the one of line management and project portfolio management in their respective major phase can be interpreted from two perspectives. First, low role clarity implies that it is not fully clear to line management and project portfolio managers how they should engage in each phase and/or they just do not show the expected engagement due to other reasons, like missing buy-in toward the strategy set by senior management or too much workload, for example. Hence, due to their overall governance, senior management compensates the reduced engagement of the other two stakeholders in a sense of firefighting or even taking over generally. A second interpretation is that due to senior management's authority and hierarchy level a crowding-out occurs with increased senior management's engagement. Senior management's responsibility in the PPM process and their core competence lies mainly in strategic tasks in the phase of portfolio structuring. If senior management tends to micromanagement and puts a lot of effort in operative issues, other stakeholders who are normally responsible for these operative tasks reduce their engagement. These correlations vanish with high role clarity, i.e., high PPM maturity. In an established PPM system, line management as well as project portfolio managers know their roles and responsibilities and all stakeholders—also senior management—comply with and fulfill them. Hence, line and project portfolio managers (can) engage independently from senior management's engagement in their major phase. This translates into the managerial implication that senior management should further establish and strengthen PPM, i.e., increase PPM maturity, comply with PPM roles and responsibilities as well as delegate, and shift tasks accordingly, so that stakeholders engage in the right process phase using their core competences.

For project portfolio managers, we see the previously discussed substitution effect in their major phase not only with senior management but also with line and project managers, when PPM shows low maturity. The role of a project portfolio manager is relatively new compared to the other roles. Within an immature PPM system, it can be assumed that project portfolio managers are either not fully qualified, i.e., they do not know how to engage where, or they do not have the needed resources or strength in position. Hence, stakeholders with the more traditional roles substitute stakeholders with the relatively new role of project portfolio managers. As the PPM system is being more and more established, i.e., toward high role clarity, project portfolio managers are equipped with the required competences and the basic conditions are set, so that the operative roles of line and project managers hand project portfolio management tasks over to project portfolio managers and reduce their engagement when the latter increase their intensity of engagement. This bundling of PPM tasks at project portfolio managers is a core goal when establishing PPM and shows that introducing a PPM system is successful with increasing role clarity.

As in a mature PPM system, all stakeholders focus on the tasks they are supposed to perform and fulfill their responsibilities; senior management does not need to engage in firefighting with portfolio steering but rather focuses on strategic tasks. Project portfolio managers focus more on operative tasks of portfolio steering, which are in their core competence, and may only engage in portfolio structuring for better understanding strategic issues and preparing for following operative tasks. Hence, it makes sense that a substitution between senior and project portfolio managers is not observed anymore.

Consequently, senior management should encourage and enable project portfolio managers to take over the tasks in portfolio steering and therefore to release line and project managers and allow them to focus on their major tasks. Given high role clarity, it may also be beneficial to involve project portfolio managers in the portfolio-structuring phase to a certain extent in order to create buy-in and understanding enhancing project portfolio managers' engagement and its impact in portfolio steering.

Finally, within immature PPM systems, line managers act as brokers and mediators between senior management representing business strategy and project managers focusing on daily business (Shi et al., 2009). This provides line management with an important and also rather powerful position in the stakeholder network. However, in more established PPM systems, line management loses this position. At the same time, when line management engages more in the strategically important phase of portfolio structuring, project portfolio managers are facing limited room for effective decisions in the following phases and therefore reduce their engagement. This is also because line managers' original responsibility and home turf is managing their resources, and later projects in the portfolio are eventually running at least partially within their departments. Thus, and because they are the interface between strategy and operations “owning” the resources, it is critical to generate buy-in and full support of line management, in order to successfully establish a project portfolio management system.

Limitations and Future Research

This study has some limitations that need to be considered when interpreting the results. Even though we use a sample of firms coming from diverse industries and the sample size can be deemed satisfactory, the specific characteristics of the participating firms might not represent all firms. In particular, the sample consists only of medium- to large-sized firms. Thus, the results may not be directly applicable to small firms with a smaller project portfolio size, where stakeholder communication might be easier, more direct, and less complex.

Furthermore, we gathered our data as part of a broader management study in German-speaking countries and among firms that already apply project portfolio management. Hence, the ability to generalize the results is limited to bigger and more project-oriented firms in Austria, Germany, and Switzerland. Future studies can consider this and test these effects with samples from different countries and cultural environments.

By concentrating on the project portfolio management process and the stakeholder interactions, first, we focused on the intensity of their engagement. Further research could extend this by analyzing the quality of stakeholders' engagement in the sense of supportiveness (McElroy & Mills, 2007) with respect to the goals of PPM phases or the PPM process as a whole.

Second, we did not explicitly consider competencies held by the managers involved. Although it can be assumed that, with increasing project portfolio management role clarity the competence of the involved managers increases as well, we did not explicitly test for these effects in the present study. This is a different story to tell and could be explored in future research.

Third, we focused on the internal key stakeholders, who are directly involved in the PPM process. Future research could focus more on project managers as the interface to the projects in the portfolio or even extend the analyzed stakeholder network by external stakeholders, e.g., experts and other employees within the firm or firm external stakeholders like suppliers and customers.

Finally, our research based on correlations has explorative character. In a next step, scholars should also analyze and test for effects of intensity of stakeholders' engagement on project portfolio success.


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Appendix 1. Items for role clarity (to be answered on a Likert-Scale 1-7)

  1. Die Aufgaben der Akteure im MPM sind formal klar voneinander abgegrenzt.
  2. Jede Aufgabe im Rahmen des MPM wird ausschließlich von der Person wahrgenommen, die auch dafür zuständig ist.
  3. Die Aufgaben des MPM werden an mehreren Stellen redundant durchgeführt.

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