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Project management skills: the hard, the soft and the in-between

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Project management methods and frameworks are, we hope, evolving and improving all the time as more projects are completed and knowledge of best practises grows. It's well-understood that project managers need to maintain and improve their professional skills – as with other disciplines, a body of knowledge is well-documented and can be applied in real-world situations.

Yet because the management of projects is a discipline spanning so many areas of human interaction; with different types of people in different fields, project management, uniquely as a profession, requires us to develop a range of personal skills, or soft skills, to complement our "hard skills". It's been said before but projects are all about the people; so it is a combination of this range of skills from the hard to soft and everything that encompasses in between that makes for an effective project manager, by which we mean simply a consistently successful PM.

It is about getting the balance of skills right so that project management techniques and tools expedite the project rather than adding unnecessary bureaucracy. The human perspective really matters when handling problems or barriers to success.

It's about knowing the right strategies and behaviours to use for any given situation. This is what we mean by true competence, what differentiates the best project managers from the rest?

Sometimes project managers need to just get it done by whatever means are appropriate – whether that's an informal chat to a major stakeholder, motivating the team for a last push, or an unpopular change control plan.

Not surprisingly there is plenty written about the skills a project manager requires to be successful. Here are some we have recently had cause to ponder. They might be better described as just human qualities.

Listening to stakeholders and taking on board what they say, working with workplace politics to get things done. They know how to work the system, to get things done through personal contacts and how to overcome bureaucratic and procedural barriers. 

Effective project managers are systematic – they organise a sequence of activities and resources to achieve objectives, identify all the tasks which need to be done and estimate using all available information. They expect and focus on improving these with experience.

Effective project managers proactively accept accountability and encourage it in others. They inspire loyalty and demonstrate commitment by what they do and not just what they say. They encourage staff to maximise discretionary effort and commitment at critical times and recognise this in appropriate ways.

Risk Management
Effective project managers always see situations as a trade-off between risk and reward. They’re aware of risk and prepared to take a calculated chance.

Monitoring and controlling
This is not just project control - good performers try and bring on the less experienced members of their team by regular checks of performance and by providing support.

The best project managers know that the corporate control systems are often slow, out of date or plain wrong. So they maintain their own systems to track important project data as a way of validating the corporate systems. They also encourage team members to adopt the same approaches.  

Results driven
They work with the customer to understand and define requirements precisely, then make every effort to meet them without defect. This puts the long-term need of the customer at the heart of the decision making process, often helping the customer understand the consequences and decisions. 

Commercially astute 
The best project managers are fully aware of the contracting framework for the project and how to use the contract to deliver the project; knowing when to collaborate to avoid disputes and when to assert your rights under the contract. They work in an open and honest way with contractors. 

Information gathering
Project managers need to gather information, analyse and process it quickly then use it to make sound decisions.

Being able to confidently make decisions, even if they are unpopular ones, is an essential skill. However, decisions have to be made for the good of the project and be based on available evidence and facts. Indecisiveness (or equally making snap decisions based on nothing more than a hunch) can be the death of a project.

As in many workplaces the project environment is rapidly changing because business objectives change rapidly – what was a priority last week or last month may not be the priority now. Therefore, a project manager needs to be prepared to be proactive to anticipate change and adapt plans as necessary, manage with a smaller team, change the requirements. Whatever is required to accommodate the changing business goals. There's no room for project managers who want to do what they've always done, and stay within their comfort zone.

Problem handling
Project managers need to be able to manage conflict and handle problems, such as working proactively with critical stakeholders to build support and avoid un-necessary conflict. This goes beyond the normal communications planning and requires personal commitment to build a relationship of trust. 

Effective project managers know their own limitations but constantly strive to improve. This means they must be able to stand back, not get involved in detail and have realistic views of their own and others capabilities. This is to ensure they neither expect things from people that they can’t do, nor commit to things they can't achieve themselves. In addition, they  know how their industry works and they don’t take advice from experts at face value. They challenge to get beneath the surface to test assumptions and the validity and relevance of arguments. 

This is a project management fundamentals blog written by Paul Naybour and co-author Mark Richardson, sponsored by Parallel Project Training. For more about our project management training courses visit our website or visit Paul Naybour on Google+.

Co-author Mark Richardson is a consultant for Parallel Project Training. He specialises in competence development for project and programme managers using behavioural assessment, training and coaching. He is a Member of the APM and an experienced risk management consultant.


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  1. Tim Hadfield
    Tim Hadfield 25 April 2016, 10:51 AM

    Paul,Some very good Project Management points to which I would suggest 'Adaptability' around approach is an important factor and skill. Tim

  2. Gbemi Akin-Oriola
    Gbemi Akin-Oriola 01 August 2023, 04:18 PM

    very clear and concise descriptions of a PM, thanks