Do you find yourself not only doing more with fewer team members, but oftentimes with team members who may not be the best match for the project's needs? You're not alone! Project team skills gaps are practically inevitable. According to A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) – Fifth Edition (Project Management Institute, 2013a, p 272), the key benefit of the Develop Project Team process is that it results in improved teamwork, enhanced people skills and competencies, motivated employees, reduced staff turnover rates, and improved overall project performance. Without these positive impacts, many projects will struggle to complete their deliverables successfully — on time and within budget. The PMBOK® Guide (Project Management Institute, 2013a, p 273) goes on to say that “Project managers should acquire skills to identify, build, maintain, motivate, lead, and inspire project teams to achieve high team performance and to meet the project's objectives.” However, it does not go into how to acquire these skills.
This paper discusses real-life examples and leading practices utilized by experienced project managers to turn the team you have into the team you need, including conducting assessments of team members’ skills and experiences, identifying and ranking impact of identified skills gaps, narrowing or closing these gaps using a variety of tools and methodologies, and recognizing and celebrating improvements and successes of the individual team members and of the team as a whole.
“With billions of dollars dependent upon the success and failure of projects, it is no wonder organizations are striving to manage projects more efficiently. PMI‘s Pulse of the Profession™ finds that performance in meeting project goals, timelines and budgets significantly impacts an organization's ability to thrive. (Exhibit 1) The imperative to improve project management for competitive advantage is clear.” (Project Management Institute, 2013b, p 3)
In a perfect world, project teams would have experienced team members with every skill needed to complete projects successfully; however, it is inevitable that there will be skill gaps on many, if not most, teams (Horowitz, 2001, p 30). These gaps are often unknown or ignored but have probably impacted most project team members and/or stakeholders at some point or another – many times without knowing the real reason the project missed objectives, ran over schedule or had cost increases. This paper explores the problems of project teams with gaps in skills or experience, how to identify and assess gaps and weaknesses, and how to close those gaps to give the project team the best possible opportunity to succeed.
Aspects of a realistic project team
Most, if not all, project managers have dreamed of one day managing the perfect project. One that has:
- clear, well-defined objectives;
- reasonable budget and timeframe;
- team members with the right skills sets available at the right times;
- project team members who are excited and devoted to the project's objectives and team's goals;
- senior management and key stakeholders who are fully committed to the project success; and
- a corporate culture that supports the project goals, employee growth and the needs of the project manager.
Of course, perfect projects are just a fairy tale and even the leading projects are likely to fall short in some area. The day-to-day realities of project management, as well as the need for project success are placing a renewed emphasis on the role of the project manager (Davis, 2011, p 37) and requiring the project manager to expand his or her toolkit of management skills.
Many companies have been so preoccupied with the recession and its very slow recovery that many other priorities have had to take a back seat to the survival of the organization. An organization's ability to meet project timelines, budget and especially goals significantly impacts its ability to survive — and even thrive. Driven by quarterly reports of less-than-stellar gains, and possibly some losses during this period, in many organizations we found:
- reduction of staff, sometimes at an alarming rate;
- hiring new talent abruptly slowed or screeched to a halt;
- workforce development in the United States and much of the world took a backseat to economic challenges;
- corporate survival became the top priority and corporate culture often suffered;
- the mantra continued and even increased to do more with less…less time, less resources…less everything; and
- in too many organizations, job satisfaction and employee morale plummeted!
Smaller teams and limited budgets
In discussions with project managers from various industries and project, program and portfolio management (PPPM) consultants, most experienced:
- tougher scrutiny to get project approved;
- smaller teams; and
- limited and/or reduced budgets.
A growing talent gap means project professionals with the right skills are in high demand. Nearly one-quarter (24%) of respondents to PwC‘s 2012 Global CEO Survey said they delayed or canceled a key strategic initiative due to talent constraints; 29% said those constraints prevented the organization from pursuing a market opportunity (Alderton, 2012, p 48).
Reduced project staffing options
Additionally, discussions with project managers representing a variety of industries revealed that they often experienced:
- too few potential team members available inside their organization with the right skills;
- resistance to hire new resources;
- being forced to accept team members who have weak skills in needed areas;
- project team members juggling more projects and tasks than in the past; and
- a shortage of qualified candidates available externally in spite of the current unemployment rate.
Employees often asked to “stretch” to new skills
In many situations where there are no potential team members who are a proper fit for the needed skills and hiring an outside person, either as a permanent employee or as a consultant, is not an option, project managers generally end up with one or more team members who are being asked to stretch into an unfamiliar role on the team. The outcome of this ‘stretch’ can be a huge success, a colossal failure, or fall somewhere in between. Moreover, if there is a skills gap that is not identified or addressed, organizations will be hard-pressed to deliver projects and programs as effectively and efficiently as they could otherwise, thus risking return on investment and potentially missing strategic goals.
Project human resources management – develop the project team
The project manager may or may not have direct control over team member selection for a number of reasons, including higher priority projects taking the most experienced resources, limited pool of available resources, use of subcontractor personnel, project branches into an area requiring skills that have not been required before, and many other reasons. Even the PMBOK® Guide acknowledges it is expected that some team members will not have the required competencies (p 266).
Questions project managers should ask themselves early and throughout the project
- Does each team member have a good grasp on the project objectives and his or her role on the team?
- Do the team members have the competencies to function well as a team?
- Do the team members have the skills needed to successfully complete their project tasks?
- If there are gaps, are they significant?
- Are there risks associated with the skills gaps?
- Is the problem due to a lack of skill, or a lack of will?
- If it is a lack of skill, what's the most efficient and cost-effective way to narrow or close the gap?
- If it is a lack of will, do any team members need to be removed from the team?
- Do any team members have strengths that could contribute to the project's success and that are not currently being utilized?
- What should be done to reward the progress and accomplishments of the team members, and the team as a whole?
The focus of this paper addresses how to assess the skill level of your project team, identify gaps, and some training strategies that can be used to fill gaps, along with some of the tools and techniques that may be used, including interpersonal skills, training, and recognition and reward. (Exhibit 2)
Traditionally, human resource professionals have taken a more structured and formal view when assessing current and potential employees by using assessment methods and tools which fall within the following categories:
- Organizational – determines what skills, knowledge and abilities the organization needs.
- Occupational – examines the skills, knowledge and abilities required by occupational groups, functions and/or departments.
- Individual – analyzes how well an employee is doing a job, such as a year-end assessment or evaluation.
These assessment tools can be very valuable in the overall development of an organization's staff; however, their application in project and program management can be a bit problematic. Project managers will likely want to take a more individualized approach when working with their project team members.
Competencies versus skills
The terms skills and competencies are often used interchangeably. In fact, they are related, but very different from each other. A skill is something learned in order to be able to carry out one or more tasks or functions. Competencies may incorporate a skill but are more than the skill. A competency is a measurable pattern of knowledge, skills, abilities, behaviors, and other characteristics that an individual needs to perform work roles or occupational functions successfully.
An example of this comes from information technology (IT). To effectively develop a computer module or system, a person needs good analytical, logical, and interpretive abilities as well as the skill to develop in a specific computer language. Learning a specific programming language is a skill, but underlying the capacity to use that skill effectively are analytical, logical and interpretive abilities, which are competencies.
Formal assessment methods
Formal assessments are the conventional method of testing that most are very familiar with from their school days. Tests such as the SAT are classified as formal assessments, as are the standardized competency assessment some organizations require their staff to take on a regular basis. There are relatively few formal assessment methods and tools for use in project management. One good example was created by Patrick Lencioni, and can be a valuable tool in understanding team dynamics and how to improve them. In his book, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, he proposed a team assessment consisting of fifteen questions along with the methodology to score the responses. The questions are insightful and could be valuable for project managers looking to improve team interactions.
Informal assessment methods
While comparisons of performance and soft skills are intricately linked, assessments are often based upon surveys or self-reporting processes instead of verifiable analytical measurements. The importance of these areas, however, is clear. Thus, over the years many ways to address them have been devised. One approach is called behavioral interviewing and relies on carefully worded, experience-based questions. Another option is self-assessment. When self-assessment is used in conjunction with other informal methods, its usefulness can significantly increase.
According to the Deloitte Skills Gap Report (Morrison et al., 2011, p 5), when asked about methods or techniques their company uses to identify and react to those skills gaps which most impact the organization, informal feedback methods were used more than formal appraisals 81% to 57% (Exhibit 3).
Important Skills for Project Managers
There are a number of skills that are crucial for the project manager to have in order to develop great rapport with the team members while leading the team to project success. The following are some of the skills which should be considered.
According to the PMBOK® Guide – Fifth Edition, “Successful projects require strong leadership skills. Leadership is important through all phases of the project life cycle.” (Project Management Institute, 2013a, p 284)
Today's complex project world demands even greater leadership knowledge, skills and capabilities than before (Berg & Karlsen, 2007, p 3). Lechler reviewed 44 investigations and found that the success of a project is much more dependent on the human factor (e.g., project leadership, project team members, and upper management support) than on technical factors. He also found that as project complexity, risk and the need for innovation increases, so does the importance of the human factor (Hauschildt, Keim, & Medcof, 2000, p 24).
It's commonly accepted that leadership, communication and networking skills top the list of competencies for project managers. Berg and Karlsen (2007) also found that project manager performance had a direct correlation to project outcomes, which confirms the critical role of the project manager's leadership influence (p 3).
The most significant challenges in project management are often people-related factors such as altering mindsets, motivating team members, communicating in an honest and timely fashion, fostering commitment, and navigating corporate culture. Gillard and Price (2005, p 49) found that interpersonal adaptability, including the appropriate use of social power, is essential for building relationships in project settings. Unless project managers and team members are working alone, interpersonal skills appear quite beneficial, if not flatly required (Davis, 2011, p 42).
In the author's experience, the better managers are great, not because they have technical experience in the area of the project but because they are guided by their integrity, personal values, and sincere concern for their team members. They also are not afraid to take on the tough issues pulling appropriate team members or stakeholders to facilitate conversations and determine a resolution. From the PMBOK® Guide – Fifth Edition, “interpersonal skills, sometimes known as ‘soft skills,’ are behavioral competencies that include proficiencies such as communication skills, emotional intelligence, conflict resolution negotiation, influence, team building, and group facilitation. These soft skills are valuable assets when developing the project team.” (Project Management Institute, 2013a, p 275)
Emotional intelligence skills
An aspect of a person's interpersonal skills is emotional intelligence (EI). Emotions are crucial in helping people make sound decisions. Logical thinking is often only rational justifications for our emotional decisions (Burgan & Burgan, 2012). EI is the ability to sense, understand, manage, and apply emotional data in a way that helps us in leading, motivating and influencing team members and project stakeholders. Individuals with high EI are better at managing conflicting paradigms, managing their own emotions, and aligning the goals of groups (Davis, 2011, p 42). Emotional awareness and emotional knowledge are relevant to organizations utilizing human manpower, and humans naturally expressing emotions, both individually and when interacting with others.
Coaching has become very popular, but many people are confused as to what it means. Coaching is about helping other people succeed now and in the future through an action-oriented dialogue to reach their personal goals as well as the project's goals. The techniques and methods used are mostly questions, encouraging and challenging the person to do something, and to give feedback. Coaching can thus be defined as the process of challenging and supporting a person or a team to develop ways of thinking, ways of being and ways of learning. The goal is to identify and attain personal and/or organizational goals.
Coaching and mentoring are often used interchangeably. Though related, they are not the same. A mentor may coach, but a coach does not mentor. Mentoring is relational, whereas coaching is functional. Mentoring is far more personal and friendship-based, offering non-judgmental support as a positive role model and focusing on a mentee's longer term personal development. The mentor makes suggestions. The relationship is neither formally evaluated nor connected to job advancement but rather to personal improvement. Mentors help their mentees over the speed bumps, providing needed support and encouragement. They offer advice, guidance, and promote enhanced self-confidence. They foster pride in the organization and boost organization communication.
Conducting Actionable Skills Assessments
The PMBOK® Guide – Fifth Edition describes this particularly well, “Personnel assessment tools give the project manager and the project team insight into areas of strength and weakness. These tools help project managers assess the team preferences, aspirations, how they process and organize information, how they tend to make decisions, and how they prefer to interact with people.” To facilitate this, here are some of the steps a project manager may utilize: review team members’ job description, if applicable; determine or review the skills needed, i.e. expectations; meet with the project team member; and observe them at work.” (Project Management Institute, 2013a, p 278)
It is common that the manager does not discover the team members’ developmental needs until they can be observed failing. (Muzio, Fisher, Thomas, & Peters, 2007, p 36) In a pilot study of a qualitative assessment tool, researchers observed that the manager was not successful in predicting both a strength and weakness for any single individual. The manager was particularly blind to the strengths of weaker performers and the weaknesses of stronger performers, both of which are essential for employee development. (Muzio, et al, 2007, p 37)
There are several very good methods for conducting assessments. This paper will discuss three: surveys and questionnaires, one-on-one discussions, and personal observations. In the experience of the author and most project manager
s interviewed by the author, the combination of these three provide the most productive outcome.
Surveys and questionnaires
A good way to identify skills gaps and learning needs is to survey employees, letting them evaluate their current skills and estimate the skill level their group must reach in order to be successful. An added advantage of this inclusive approach is that it heightens employees’ awareness of their learning needs and helps break down any resistance to learning new skills.
One project manager interviewed for this article has a practice of surveying all of the team members anytime she is beginning a new project or taking over on an established project. She feels strongly that this allows her to get to know the team members more quickly as well as identify any problem areas before they impact the project deliverables. She has a standard template of soft skills questions, which she supplements with the questions about the appropriate technical skills for each respective position. Incidentally, she has an excellent track record of successful project outcomes.
The one-on-one conversation is a very powerful assessment tool for project managers. It's also a great way to begin to develop the team relationships that build a strong, committed team and encourage better results. It can be used to discover any skills gaps as well as previously unidentified strengths and should be followed up by agreed-upon action. In order for these conversations to be successful, there are a myriad of techniques that are helpful, starting with the project manager's leadership skills, management style and reputation for honesty and integrity in team relationships. The high-impact leader makes sure that everyone's agenda is heard and explored. He or she carefully asks questions to make sure there is a genuine expression of beliefs, expectations and even fears, while also patiently keeping the conversation relevant to the big picture.
In an article written for Harvard Business Review, Bill Parcells (2000), well-known former NFL coach, writes regarding his interactions with team members;
After I talked to them as a group and established my credibility as a leader, I began talking with them personally. I‘ve found that holding frank, one-on-one conversations with every member of the organization is essential to success. It allows me to ask each player for his support in helping the team achieve its goals, and it allows me to explain exactly what I expect from him. Leaders can do everything right with their teams and still fail if they don't deliver their message to each member as an individual (p 6).
Project managers can learn from his experiences and successes.
To get connected and stay connected, a project manager should walk around and talk to team members, work alongside them, ask questions, and be there to help when needed. This practice has been called Management By Walking About (MBWA). Tom Peters, in his successful 1982 book In Search of Excellence (Peters & Waterman, 1982), included lessons learned from Hewlett-Packard and other companies that used a similar style — and the term MBWA promptly became popular (p 289).
This concept works particularly in the early stages of a project to observe team members conducting their tasks and interacting with other team members. When done properly, it can assist the project manager in identifying any shortcomings before they become an issue, improving relationships between the project manager and team members, and reinforcing the idea that the project manager truly is approachable and has an open door policy.
Identifying and Analyzing Gaps in Skills and Competencies
Once the assessments have been completed, they are of little use if the project manager doesn't take the time to analyze them and determine if action is needed, and if so, what action(s) will contribute to the successful completion of the project, as well as to the development of the project team members. Determining the cause of the issue or gap will provide valuable guidance to the project manager in deciding upon the better action to take. Additionally, as with all circumstances that can impact project outcomes, it is important for the project manager to conduct a risk analysis.
Determining cause — a problem of skill or a problem of will
An important step in any assessment of skills shortfalls or poor team member performance is to determine if the issue is a problem of skill or a problem of will. If the issue is a lack of skill or knowledge, then there are a variety of methods that will help close the gap. However, if the project manager learns that the issue is a problem of will, the likelihood of a successful outcome is much diminished. At that point, it is critical to dig a bit deeper to determine if there are motivational factors that are missing and can be implemented or if the better plan of action is to request that the team member be removed from the team.
Risks associated with skills gaps
As part of the risk management processes, project managers should assess and possibly include any potential risks associated with known or potential shortcomings in team member skills. Mitigation plans should be considered and potential training costs should be added to the budget. It is not uncommon for schedules and estimates to be done before the team members’ skills are considered, or maybe even before the team is selected. When the need for training arises, there's no budget for it, no schedule for it and no value assigned to it. As with many project difficulties, this can be avoided by proper planning. To reinforce this, PMI‘s Pulse of the Profession™ The High Cost of Low Performance (Project Management Institute, 2013b) lists three steps for organizations to take to minimize risk. The first of which is to Focus on Talent Development (p 13). Organizations consider this advice.
Narrowing or Closing Gaps
Both formal and informal methods of training can be used to narrow identified skills gaps and contribute to project success outcomes (Exhibit 7). Most people think of formal methods first, such as instructor-led training or e-learning courses. Some people like e-learning because they can take courses at their convenience; however, the interaction and peer-group learning experiences that come with face-to-face learning may be more effective in the long run (Alderton, 2012, p 49).
On the other hand, many project managers have found informal methods to be more cost-effective and very successful. Some of these methods include on-the-job training, cross-training, mentoring and coaching.
Competent instructor led training can be a very cost-effective method for learning skills in highly technical subjects such as software development. A good instructor can take complex topics and give a high level understanding of the logic and goals of a specific technique. Once given, that high level understanding of the complex technique, it is amazing how quickly learners can begin using these newly acquired skills on their projects and assignments. An added benefit is that after gaining a solid understanding of the complex subjects, online and printed content now becomes much more useful.
An advantage e-learning has over instructor-led training is that it can be accessed by learners when it is convenient for them and they can navigate through the course to view content that pertains to their need. With e-learning courses, learners can filter through the course and only participate in the section that is relevant to their current needs. This saves the learner and the project time and expense.
On-the-job training is a natural part of day-to-day life in most organizations and happens without any planning or acknowledgement. It can also be used in an intentional manner when a team member has a skills gap and there are one or more people in the organization who have the same skills. By pairing the team members, the skills can be transferred with minimal impact on the project and possibly in a more effective manner with one-on-one interaction and the opportunity to ask questions and clarify any confusion.
Research conducted at the Center for Creative Leadership in Greensboro, North Carolina, USA revealed that extraordinary managers believed that their own personal learning came from three sources in these proportions: schools and seminars – 10%; other people – 20%; on-the-job training – 70% (Wilson, Velsor, Chandrasekar, & Criswell, 2011, p 4).
Coaching is about helping other people succeed now and in the future. For the project manager, it is helping team members through an action-oriented dialogue to reach the project's goals. A common dilemma in the coaching relationship is that the team member expects to receive advice, which is not what coaching is about, as previously addressed. Coaching is a learning method where the coach helps the team members discover and develop their talents. The techniques and methods used are mostly questions, encouraging and challenging the person to take action and provide feedback. In coaching, it is very important for the coach to listen intently. The more the coach's questions are focused and to-the-point, the more trust and credibility the team member invests into both the conversation and the relationship. (Bourg, Stoltzfus, McManus & Fry, 2010, p 1010)
Mentoring enables an organization to use its existing talent to impart their knowledge and expertise to others. This can be especially valuable as a way to facilitate the transfer of the hard-earned wisdom and knowledge of experienced team members to the less experienced ones. The key to successful mentoring is to recognize and respect each other's strengths and differences, clarify expectations and roles, establish clear goals and a mentoring action plan, and to manage the logistics of the mentoring process to make sure meetings take place.
When the author asked a leader at Deloitte, “What is the secret to success here at Deloitte?” His answer was, “Simple. Although it requires a lot of personal effort, own your career.” This advice holds true at most organizations. Project team members benefit from taking the initiative to maintain a constant dialogue with the project manager, and not be afraid to ask the tough questions about what they can do to improve their performance and contribute to the project team. Having candid conversations with the project manager is a great enabler to professional growth and development. Even the most experienced professionals need to be constantly vigilant to work diligently toward developing their professional attributes. It is important to take ownership of one's own professional development by setting ambitious yet realistic goals for self-improvement and by constantly seeking and implementing feedback.
Recognizing Progress and Team Member Contributions
The PMBOK® Guide – Fifth Edition (Project Management Institute, 2013a) stated,
People are motivated if they feel they are valued in the organization and this value is demonstrated by the rewards given to them. Generally, money is viewed as a tangible aspect of any reward system, but intangible rewards could be equally or even more effective. Most project team members are motivated by an opportunity to grow, accomplish, and apply their professional skills to meet new challenges. A good strategy for project managers is to give the team recognition throughout the life cycle of the project rather than waiting until the project is completed. (p 277)
When project managers notice excellence, they should praise the effort it must have taken to get there. They will not only be rewarding excellence but will also be building growth and confidence. If one feels that there is not time to show appreciation to a team member, then stop and think about how much is being invested in hiring and training new people. By comparison, a simple “thank you” is one of the better bargains going!
Key Takeaways for Optimizing Team Skills
As experienced project managers know, it is inevitable that skill gaps exist on many, if not most, project teams. These gaps often have an impact on successful project outcomes; sometimes the impact is major or can even cause project failure. However, in most cases, that impact can be minimized or possibly eliminated altogether. This paper has discussed several considerations and actions that are keys to identifying and handling the impact of these gaps.
Project managers are the key to building a capable, strong, and successful team. Crucial interpersonal qualities for Project managers include being:
- honest, consistent and fair (in reality as well as perception);
- trustworthy and reliable;
- enthusiastic and optimistic; and
- willing to take on the tough issues
A project manager or team member cannot remedy a skills gap that has not been identified. A very effective and cost-efficient tool for identifying any skills gaps is a candid one-on-one discussion with team members at the beginning of the project and at regular intervals throughout the project life cycle.
Multiple options exist for closing the skills gap. First and foremost, the project manager needs to determine if training is the preferred answer. If it is, then he or she can consider any number of solutions:
- Mentoring, coaching and on-the-job training are very cost-effective training options
- Online, e-learning and instructor-led courses work well to meet gaps, particularly for technical skills.
- In some cases, the better choice is to hire the needed skill, whether on a temporary or permanent basis.
And don't forget to thank team members. Workers who feel appreciated are twice as likely to be committed to the project outcomes as those who don't feel appreciated.
Well-known author Peter Drucker said it well, “If you think training is expensive, try ignorance!”
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