Tag Archives: Soft Skills

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!

High Performance Project Management

I have just seen some information on a 2007 survey undertaken by the PMO Executive Council (part of the Corporate Executive Board: http://www.executiveboard.com/). This snapshot survey, Attributes of a High Performance PM – 2007, found very little correlation between project management certification and project management effectiveness, or the number of years a person has been in project management roles and project management effectiveness.

The survey found the drivers for project management effectiveness were behavioural attributes such as problem solving and the ability to relate effectively with key stakeholders. Whilst many people may initially want to disagree with these findings, they are consistent with many other trends and on reflection quite logical.

Firstly, the survey did not look at the PM’s track record, merely the time the PM had been in project roles. It is reasonable to assume highly effective PMs will have a relatively short PM career and then move on and up the organisational hierarchy. Less effective PMs are likely to stay in their PM role focused on process and technology.

Secondly, whilst PM credentials such as PMP remain very effective tools in the job market; passing your PMP does not make you an effective project manager (see more on PMP). The PMP knowledge framework gives you the knowledge to be an effective project manager. Being effective requires you to become a competent project manager.

Competency has three aspects, knowledge, skills and behaviour:

  • what you know,
  • your ability to apply the knowledge (essentially personality traits) and
  • your willingness to use the skills effectively (essentially behavioural traits).

Qualifying project managers based on behavioural competencies is in its infancy. The Australian Institute of Project Management (AIPM) has recently moved its professional certification program (RegPM) from a procedural view of competency (eg, do you have a project schedule – the artefact?) to a behavioural view of competency (how effectively do you manager the schedule on your project?). This is ground breaking work.

PMI have adopted a different, but similar approach in their program management certification (PgMP) with a 360 degree review testing how effective the candidate is in the workplace. These trends have a long way to go but are likely to be the next step in project certification.

Of more direct interest in the short term is the demonstrated link between how effectively a project manager engages with his/her key stakeholders and high performance outcomes. These skills are a core element in a number of workshops we run including Successful Stakeholder Management and The Science and Art of Communicating Effectively, and are supported in part by our Stakeholder Circle® methodology and tool set.

Learning how to apply the skills in the workplace though is not quite as simple as attending a workshop or buying a set of tools. Soft skills are very hard to acquire and use. My feeling is they are called ‘soft’ because they change shape and texture depending on the environment they are being applied within. The calculations for EV or CPM are universal; the best way to engage a senior stakeholder is totally dependent on the culture of the organisation. Some elements remain consistent (eg, the need for an effective relationship) but the way this is achieved varies.

Developing these advanced skills that are the attributes of high performance project managers requires context sensitive coaching and mentoring rather then formal courses (see: Executive PM Coaching & Mentoring). Ideally organisations seeking to develop high performance PMs will move beyond certification towards implementing internal mentoring systems – it’s the best way to ensure they are contextually relevant.

However, where we differ from the survey findings is that we believe certifications such as PMP are still relevant. Passing a PMI credential such as PMP or CAPM (see more on the PMI credential framework) is a positive demonstration of the initial knowledge component of competency; it’s just that knowledge alone is not sufficient.

Achieving this next level of high performance PMs will also require organisational competence in at least two domains. Process competence measured by tools such as PMI’s OPM3® framework and relationship management maturity measured by tools such as my SRMM® framework.

These are definitely interesting times for our profession.