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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.”