The importance of soft skills

The leadership and communication coach and author Peggy Klaus wrote: “Soft skills get little respect, but they will make or break your career”.

Similarly, they can make or break your project.

Commonly known as “people” or interpersonal skills, soft skills like negotiating, building morale, and maintaining relationships are key to successful delivery of a project.

Critical Input Senior Consultant Chris Bevin knows the importance of soft skills after almost two decades working in some of the toughest project areas – mining, resources, infrastructure and energy.

She regards the term “soft skills” as a misnomer.

“For so many of us, myself included, they can be some of the harder skills to consistently deploy, develop in others and measure,” she said.

“However, they are integral to our success as agents of change, which is so critical within project management and PMOs.”

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Shades of grey

Ms Bevin said many people found it easier to identify, monitor and “score” the fixed points against which Project Management Frameworks and other critical governance processes were measured.

“These things are substantively black and white,” she said.

“Working out the rules in the grey is so much more subjective – both in what we do, but also how it is perceived.

“Yet according to some estimates, soft skills are responsible for the bigger part of project success.

“Only relatively recently have Project Management Body of Knowledge (PBMOK) and other project management training and assessment materials started talking to the ‘soft skills’ toolbelt needed for project management.

“The International Project Management Association’s (IPMA) Individual Competence Baseline now incorporates people competencies that assess skills including: self-reflection and self-management; personal integrity and reliability; communication; relationships and engagement; leadership; teamwork; conflict and crisis; resourcefulness; negotiation skills; and results orientation.”

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More than a formula

Ms Bevin said there appeared to be a growing awareness that these skills were becoming even more important in the age of automation and system development.

“As we all know, successful delivery of projects requires change,” she said.

“The success of any change is inherently connected to these soft skills.

“Project Management Frameworks provide the critically important structures and governance under which our projects are delivered.

“However, soft skills, like emotional intelligence, problem-solving, effective communication and conflict resolution, which are integral to successful change, cannot be formularised.

“Project Management has always been as much art as science, but as the pace of change, and projects, increases the art is increasingly critical to success.”

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Art and science go hand-in-hand

Ms Bevin said project professionals increasingly understood that personal style and experience influenced their effectiveness in mastering and demonstrating the competencies that made successful project management both a science and an art.

“It’s easy to dismiss the emerging discussion of soft skills as a new-fangled, touchy-feely concept, far removed from the tin tacks of project management, especially in the engineering and “harder” project realms,” she said.

“However, I am sure we all have those meetings, conversations or projects on which we look back and know, that if only we had approached the situation differently, we would have achieved a far better outcome – for our projects and ourselves.

“Similarly, as Change Managers appear as a specific capability stream, often alongside Project Management, it can be tempting to think change and project management can be decoupled.

 “When we as Project Managers are actively aware of our role as change agents, we ensure a better project outcome for our organisations, stakeholders, project teams and ourselves.”

The elements of soft skills

Critical Input Senior Consultant Chris Bevin recently presented a workshop for one of our clients on how soft skills enhance the project management process. Here she shares some key insights and take-homes from her presentation to this Queensland state-owned utility entity, which is driving change within their Project Delivery Framework.

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These soft skills are intrinsically interlinked and can influence project outcomes and optimise the effectiveness of change.

Communication is key

Virtually everything we do as leaders of projects is underpinned or enhanced by the soft skills we bring to the table with us. These include our capacity for communication, negotiation and self-reflection.

A project manager’s success depends more on the ability to communicate well (with stakeholders, team members, organisational leadership and customers) than on anything else.

There are myriad “essential” communication skills in project management, but top of the list are:

  • Active listening: Fully concentrating on what is being said rather than just passively ‘hearing’ the message of the speaker, not only focussing fully on what the speaker is saying, but also actively showing verbal and non-verbal signs of listening.
  • Respect for contradictory points of view: Opposing views can be surprisingly informative, and they can enrich our own understanding of issues that are important to us. Being open to contradictory points of view may not change our own, but it can often provide an invaluable perspective from which to persuasively present your own perspective, as well as supporting the development of relationships built on respect and trust.
  • The ability to set expectations and accountability: Setting goals and objectives at the outset of a project are important, but another critical factor is to set clear expectations and accountability for everyone — including internal and external stakeholders. If you don’t make clear what you expect of your team members, and those positioned to impact the success of your project it is unlikely they will all intuitively know what you expect of them, by when and to what quality.
  • Translation: An effective project manager must understand how they and their audience speak and listen. Having understood all sides of the equation, you can then modify your communication style – whether that be through adopting different media, moderating “lingo” or the selection of an alternate delivery strategy, so that your message is clear to all parties.
  • Negotiation: There will always be a place for all negotiation styles – however, it is imperative that, as Project leaders, we ensure that negotiations are conducted respectfully, we listen actively and maintain our personal integrity.

Soft skills don’t need to equate to soft negotiation styles – in fact, they are more aligned to the P2O2 or Principled negotiation:

·     Separating people from the problem

·     Focusing on interests, not positions

·     Generating options for mutual gain before choosing

·     Decision making based on objective criteria

·     And building an understanding of their BATNA to know and improve your own.

Self-reflection aids learnings

Socrates said: “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

That doesn’t mean it’s easy.

As project leaders, we make sure our teams and stakeholders take the time to plan, review, conduct lessons learned, etc – to not take time out for self-reflection is the personal equivalent of “fail to plan”, and therefore planning to fail.

Self-reflection assists us in building capacity to self-manage by gaining perspective; being able to respond more effectively – particularly when we are busy, tired and/or under pressure; consider alternative strategies and options; learning and understanding areas where we need to develop.

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