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Sunday, February 22, 2015

Nothing Soft about Project Skills

    We call them “hard” skills because they have recognizable shape and the appearance of substance.
     By the hard skills standard, thirty years on the job earns you a presumption of competence at whatever the specialty is. BA, MBA, PCE, PMP, licenses and certificates. They all open gates because we take them as proof the holder is good at stuff.
     Now we can place that person, and make assumptions about how much he or she matters.
     While the tangible proofs of professional ability often are the objects of intense personal pride, they also have the aura of objectivity as you present yourself to the world. They are the currency of value in the competency marketplace.
     But “soft” skills, conversely, are private and local, not easy to specify on the resume: “Excellent communicator – strong team worker – known as problem solver. . . .”
     You talking about yourself? Yuck. Doesn’t work, not at all.

    Interestingly, project managers argue about this a lot. They occupy some of the hottest seats in the world of management, so the issue needs careful examination.
     Can you manage projects without personal expertise in the particular specialty?
     How, for instance, can you know if your team members are giving you the straight story on what they’re into and how they’re doing?
     Sometimes it seems the majority of my colleagues believe the only way to know is to be qualified in the work yourself. That way, no one can hoodwink you.
     I have several problems with that line of thinking.
     For one thing, it encourages the manager to roll up sleeves and get into the work too deeply. That is so much more satisfying, particularly if it takes your mind off the tangle of knottier issues elsewhere in the project.

    More broadly, it would seem to limit a person’s project work to his/her own specialty.
     I happen to be an English major with a 28-year career as a newspaper reporter, editor and manager. What the hell am I doing consulting with people who manage projects in software engineering, healthcare delivery, manufacturing and numerous other fields?
     Well, it’s been going OK for the last few decades. The project managers tell me they benefit, sometimes quite significantly, from our association. Why? Because I don’t consult on software, healthcare, etc. These managers usually are already quite knowledgeable in all that.
     What bedevils them is the management part, and that’s what I do. Management is a specialty of its own, regardless of the field in which it is practiced. There obviously are differences among specialties – but there are differences (often far greater) between different organizations in the same industry.

     The essence of the managerial challenge, though, remains constant everywhere.
     When I work within an organization, or with groups of project managers from widely varied industries, the most pervasive and difficult problems are almost certain to arise in one area: The relationships with decision-makers.
     The clarity of decision-making too often is missing. So is communication – in both transmission of information and in meaningful attention to reports and requests. The top people often don’t understand each other, don’t agree . . . and make no particular effort to overcome the gaps.
     Planning is a related area pitiful in the inadequacy of agreements, commitments, resource allocation and follow-through. Too frequently, there is avoidance and/or endless postponement in problem-solving.
     The project manager must be the politician who gets the parties together, the decisions made and the work done.

     It’s not all on the authority stakeholders, of course. Project managers can fall short in building productive relationships with their team members and others associated with their projects. Assertive, explanatory speech is important, as are asking the right questions and really listening to answers, queries and requests.
     Negotiating, problem-solving and conflict management are staples in the project manager’s communication diet. Doing what you said you’d do trumps everything in the action area, backed by consistent time management. Good listening is tops in relationships.
     None of this comes easy – or at all, if a skilled project manager doesn’t make it happen.

     Think about your own project management experience. Where’s the grief? What are the greatest barriers to overcome?
     One software project manager dealt quickly with that question last week:
     “Technology? No problem – there’s always a solution. People? Now there’s the real problem.”
     SOFT skills? We need some new language.   


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