Soft skills

Key to project management when you have no authority
19 Mar 2015

Soft skills for project managers

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There’s a saying in project management: “When it comes to achieving outcomes, project managers have all of the responsibility but none of the authority”. Meaning we often find ourselves with little or no formal authority over the project team, resources or constraints.

We manage teams of people who report to someone else (such as their line manager). We often inherit an unfeasible budget for a set scope of work. We manage within a range of constraints over which we have little control (such as the contractor engagement process).

So how do we:

  • get the resources we need for the project?
  • get team members to prioritise our work despite having competing operational duties?
  • work around the various constraints imposed on the project?

The short answer is: soft skills.

By this I mean a range of interpersonal skills including;

  • negotiation
  • communication
  • empathy
  • leadership
  • motivation
  • conflict resolution
  • strategic thinking
  • rapport building
  • persuasion, influence and so on.

In fact, I would go even further and argue that in this day and age, even with formal authority, you can’t manage projects effectively – or people generally – without these skills. Indeed the International Project Management Association (IPMA) Competency Baseline (ICB) groups project management competencies into three categories: Technical, Contextual, and Behavioural Competences – also known as ‘soft skills’.

Numerous studies have shown a link between project success and the soft skills of the Project Manager. More recently, similar studies have shown that soft skills are highly correlated with success on ‘soft’ projects – such as restructures, policy implementations, mergers & acquisitions, research, government programs and projects aimed at creating benefits/outcomes that emerge after the project has been completed. This includes environmental or climate-change projects, community service, health and other complex initiatives.

In other words: the softer and more complex your project; the more you need soft skills.

This is not to downplay the importance of ‘hard skills’ in project management, such as the ability to create a Gantt chart, budget, risk register, and so on. Certainly hard skills are important on project. They are required, but not sufficient.

It’s the soft skills that are essential. Which brings us to another saying in project management: “you need hard skills to be a good project manager; but you need soft skills to be a great one.”