Project management is about soft skills supported by technology

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There is a lot of buzz about how project management will be transformed by advances in artificial intelligence, digital technology and disruptive forces. There are many social media articles promoting the adoption of various technologies as the path to a successful project. Whilst new technology and the fourth industrial revolution will impact on the way projects are managed the most important factor is the skillset of the project manager and their leadership of the project team. New technology won’t improve the effectiveness of the project manager unless they use their soft skills supported by technological advances.

My experience confirms that the most important factor for project performance is the skillset of the project manager and their leadership of the project team. Whilst advances in software technology have no doubt assisted in reducing timescales of repetitive tasks, there is little evidence to suggest that this leads to a more successful project outcome. We can’t rely on technology alone.  

Management is about effectively dealing with complexity, leadership involves dealing with change. The nature of projects is changing, they are becoming larger and more complex; new technology is emerging and new skills are needed; having heterogeneous teams and greater uncertainty is growing. In this context, it is increasingly important to have a clear idea of the work involved to deliver projects successfully and knowledge of the best combination of skills and competencies for the project manager to be most effective.

Let’s just take a minute to reflect on the basics of project management; I will briefly discuss some observations based on my work experience.

  • Scope - The project manager must fully understand the client scope and expected benefits from the completed project. How often will a project commence with the team having an understanding of the scope but not what the intended outcome will achieve? New technology may be able to help project managers explain the scope or analyse parts of it for the project team, but it is the project managers understanding which is necessary here.
  • Soft skills - Often an individual will be selected to run a project on the basis of availability rather than matching of skills and experience to the project requirements. The project manager should not only be skilled in the particular complexities of the project but they must demonstrate a number of soft the top five of which are:
    • people skills, for example team building,
    • leadership,
    • active listening,
    • communication,
    • integrity or ethical behaviour.

This order will change with new skills added depending upon the project characteristics. However, to be effective as a leader, the project manager requires a changing mix of skills and competencies, depending on the project being delivered.

  • Change control - many projects will incorporate changes to scope and this is where the project manager needs to demonstrate an ability to manage the change and communicate impacts to the client. This is important as the cost and duration changes will need to be accounted for and the project benefits re-evaluated.
  • Planning and risks - an effective project manager will continuously communicate with the client, project team and stakeholders in order to anticipate changes in the form of scope, time delays or even changes in design standards. The programme is key as it not only keeps the client updated on delivery but also serves as a record of delays for commercial purposes. Additionally, the client will want to be made aware of the key project risks with impacts and intended mitigation. The project manager needs to make sure this is happening, even if they’re using new technology to help them communicate.

Summary

Project management is not a ‘one size fits all’ approach due to the varying nature and characteristics of projects. Engineering projects will be different to IT projects and within engineering there are differences between highways, water treatment and railway projects. The project manager should therefore be selected based on a good match of required skills.  Soft skills dominate the commonly accepted list of skills and so the project sponsor should ensure that this is evident prior to appointment.

I agree that the project manager should be aware of emerging technology and how it can assist with project delivery, but I suggest it will not have as much impact on project delivery as some commentators suggest.  The most important factor for project performance is a project manager who can demonstrate effective soft skills and previous experience with the characteristics of the project; combining technological advances with these skills is the way forward for more successful projects.

Tony Thomas

Posted by Tony Thomas on 3rd Sep 2019

About the Author

Tony is a Project Delivery and Operations Management professional with over 30 years' experience within Engineering Consultancy & Government Departments. He is a Chartered/Professional Civil Engineer with main areas of experience on Multi-disciplinary Transport projects experienced in managing design teams across a multi-office delivery platform. He is familiar with international engineering consultancy practices having worked in the UK, Australia and Qatar.

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