Confronting Soft Skills

I never cease to be amazed by the number of people holding leadership roles in the project management community who denigrate ‘soft’ skills. The latest attack on ‘soft’ skills is in a letter to the editor in the May edition of Project Magazine published by the APM, UK.

The Honorary Secretary of the APM Contracts and Procurement SIG, Gerry Orman states ‘soft skills are merely a form of manipulation’; and suggests including them in the knowledge framework for the project management profession will result in the dumbing down of our emerging profession. He also asserts the role of the project manager is to fulfil a contract, not deliver the project so apparently people leading the delivery of internal projects within organisations are not project managers!

Apart from the difficulty of defining projects in terms of one sourcing methodology, writing contracts, Orman seems to conveniently forget the thousands of contracts that end up in the courts each year because of the breakdown in relationships within the contract. Stakeholder management is a key skill for project managers, including identifying, prioritising the project’s stakeholders, and then developing effective communication within relationships that work (for more on this see WP1007 The Stakeholder Cycle). The success of the construction phase of Terminal 5 at Heathrow was largely due to BAA’s focus on the ‘soft’ skills needed to develop and sustain the integrated delivery teams that created the success. This was a revolution in procurement and supply chain management and led to this project being celebrated as the most successful construction project in the UK (for more on this see my presentation to the CIPS Australasia Strategic Procurement Forum in Auckland).

The same argument applies to most project management artefacts. The most perfectly developed schedule is totally useless if the information it contains is not communicated to the people who need to work to the plan; communication is a ‘soft’ skill. But communication on its own is not enough! The people receiving the communication need to understand the message and agree to use the schedule in the coordination of their work. This is unlikely to happen if the people have not been involved in the schedule development which requires more stakeholder engagement and communication, consensus building and a range of other ‘soft’ skills (see: Communication in organisations: making the schedule effective).

Putting it another way, developing an effective schedule that is useful because it is actually used to manage time on the project demands the project manager and/or project scheduler engage effectively with the people who will be responsible for implementing the schedule. This requires interpersonal, contextual and behavioural competencies.

Orman also states professional skills should be unique to the professions, examinable in a written exam and uses the medical profession as an example. Two members of our family recently completed a multi year journey to become qualified anaesthetists. Over the years there were many written examinations but there were also searching interviews and clinical assessments along the way and years of ‘apprenticeship’ under the direction of more senior professionals to ensure they were competent as well as knowledgeable. If medical professionals need more than book learning and written examinations why should project managers be any different?

Project success is achieved by persuading people in the project team to enthusiastically and collaboratively work together to achieve the contracted output. Developing a motivated team capable of achieving this requires a range of ‘soft’ skills including leadership, motivation, communication and conflict management to name a few. Organisations cannot do work; it is the people within the organisation that do the work and management is about directing and leading people!

Answering the question, what is more important, the ‘hard’ skills of scope management, scheduling and cost planning or the ‘soft’ skills of motivation, communication and leadership, is difficult. My feeling is the synergy of ‘hard’ skills powered by ‘soft’ skills will create a far more powerful engine for success than the sum of the two parts in isolation. Successful project managers need both capabilities either within their person or within their leadership team.

If we ignore stakeholders and the ‘soft’ side of our project management skill set we severely reduce our ability to meet our client’s requirements for on time on budget and on scope delivery. ‘Soft’ is not a synonym for easy!


8 responses to “Confronting Soft Skills

  1. Lynda,

    What has happened in our local PMI chapter is the “soft” skills have replaced the hard skills of PMBOK.

    The BAA example is an illustration that soft slills are needed to execute the credible project plan. Without this credibility of the Master Plan, Master Schedule, correct financial structure, risk plans etc. all the soft skills on the planet will not result in project success.

    My experience with PMI here is that outside the College of Performance Management and the College of Scheduling, the attendees of conferences and symposiums are looking for those software skills First. Only then does the heavy lifting of managing projects become important.

    In another PMI chapter down the road an hour, where Air Force and Intelligence agencies live as well as heavy construction, those heavy lifting skills come first, since most of the participants are already managing projects in the mid-career positions.

    • Whilst a motivated team is always likely to perform better than a team that simply follows due process, hard skills are an important part of the balance. There’s no point in motivating people to work enthusiastically to implement a plan that is basically flawed. Conversely there’s no point in developing a ‘perfect plan’ if no one uses it.

      As a profession we have a long way to go to get the balance right, I fact I think we are still struggling to work out what should be in the mix that needs balancing.

  2. The so called Soft Skills really do appear to have been miss-named. They are far from easy to master and anyone in a Project Management role who states that they are not a requirement of the role probably has a development need of their own.

    My experience is that it’s when difficulties arise that the PMs with the refined soft skills come to the fore and those that are lacking only exasperate the situation.

  3. My feeling is people misunderstand ‘soft’. The way you calculate schedule float is ‘hard’ there is no flexibility in the way the mathematics are employed within a methodology. The same calculation works every time on every project. This applies to most of the ‘hard’ processes from the WBS onwards – you need skill and knowledge to get the information right but the process itself is defined and standardised, teachable and examinable through mulit-choice questions (just as well – it makes developing and maintaining out PMP and CAPM materials relatively easy). Success is created by applying the methodology consistently.

    Interpersonal skills are ‘soft’ because to be used effectively the principles have to be adapted to the circumstances and the relationship as it exists at the time. I’m a qualified mediator and whilst we have a methodology and most successful mediations flow along roughly similar paths all of the people involved are adapting to changing circumstances all of the time. The core principles of Natural Justice and respect remain sacrosanct but success is achieved by being flexible in the adaptation of the methodology to meet the needs of the people involved.

    The challenge with teaching and testing ‘soft’ skills is the theory is only the start; skilled partitioners adapt the theory to take into account firstly their personality and then the actual circumstances of the current situation. You can’t learn this from a book – the book knowledge is important, but so is practice in simulated and live situations (apprenticeship) and interestingly as the person learning absorbs the knowledge and builds their skills they change so they need to keep adapting their practice to optimise outcomes. Altogether a much more difficult place to operate in.

  4. Nice to hear someone standing up for the importance of interpersonal skills.

    The business world (particularly the IT part of it, where I work) seems to be doing a very poor job of addressing the development of interpersonal skills. The need for interpersonal skills seems to be completely ignored for everyone who doesn’t have “manager” in their job title, and there is far too much emphasis on categorizing people (Meyers-Briggs etc) rather than developing them.

    As for soft skills merely being manipulation, the author of that statement should read up on “authentic leadership”.

  5. As project managers we manage a range of ‘things’, from contracts, to plans, to deliverables, and people! If we cannot manage people, be it our own project teams, stakeholders etc we will quickly become unstuck!

    As many of the posts here have commented, we need to ‘hard’ skills, and we need to know them well; equally, we need to master the ‘soft’ skills, these are the crucial elements to success.

  6. Pingback: Reframing the PMBOK® Guide | Mosaicproject’s Blog

  7. I’m a Career Services Officer at an engineering focused University. We have a tool we use to help students evaluate and develop soft-skills. Based on our discussion with employers we have identified 7 key areas we would like students to self- assess as we feel these areas are important in getting and keeping a job. I’ve told students that one of the main reasons people lose jobs is because they can’t play well with others. Those soft skills (I don’t like the term either, but non-technical doesn’t seem to cut it) are the ones that help you to play well with your peers. Those areas that we have identified based on employer feedback are: Communication, critical thinking/problem solving, relationship building, leadership skills, teaming (building and participation), globalization, and comfort with diversity (age, ethnic, etc). Students are finally coming around with help of buy in from faculty and employer backup. Any suggestions on how to keep the momentum going? We have a new V.P. of academics and he very supportive. He is considering incorporating these skills the assessment process for each course.

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