Human side of project management

Developing project managers for the '90s


February 1991


John Simonds and Margaret Winch

American business is facing a new set of challenges. The ’80s were the marketing decade. The ’90s promise to be preoccupied with people-management issues.

The makeup of the American work force is changing, and quality employees are becoming increasingly difficult to find. To keep valuable employees and to attract new ones, managers will have to learn effective human resource management techniques. And firms will have to offer their employees the training necessary to stay competitive well into the next century.


A pivotal employee in any firm, but one who traditionally has lacked the kinds of people skills necessary for success today, is the project manager. He or she is often the only representative of the firm that the client sees regularly. In the client's eyes, the project manager stands for the firm and the way it does business. Also, the project manager is the bridge between management and subordinates, communicating the needs of each group to the other.

The demands on a project manager are complex and increasingly diverse. Once technical competence was all a good project manager needed. Today, this position requires a person who can communicate with clients, defuse conflict, get jobs done on time and within budget, negotiate and navigate political waters.

Clients generally take technical competence for granted when they are trying to select a project team. They look for a project manager who is responsive to their needs, who listens, who is articulate and can write clearly. They expect a leader who can motivate diverse groups and keep conflict under control.

Within an organization, the project manager plays an important role in how satisfied people are with their work. The project manager communicates the objectives of management to subordinates and relies on persuasion to gain subordinates’ cooperation. The project manager must know how to provide feedback that will motivate workers and make them feel that they are part of a team.

The project manager must also be able to communicate progress to senior management and to clients and must work with peers to coordinate different tasks within the organization. If a firm's project managers do not provide all these links, the organization is likely to fall short of its goals.

Such demands and responsibilities put significant pressure on project managers. Because they are answerable to such different constituencies, project managers often fall victim to role ambiguity and lack of identity within the organization. Since they are both superior and subordinate, they feel the stress of each position.

Senior management has been slow to recognize how crucial employees at the project manager level are to the success of a firm. Therefore, training in the kinds of people skills project managers desperately need has been scant.


In the summer of 1988, our firm conducted more than 100 interviews with the clients of design firms. The responses were emphatic on the point that technical competence is no longer enough for managing complex projects. Technical competence is vital, these clients said, but they look beyond it when they are choosing a project team. They look for political savvy and the ability to communicate. When something goes wrong on a project, they said, seven times out of ten the cause is a breakdown in communication not a breakdown in technology.

Over the past ten years, we have conducted more than a dozen detailed employee attitude surveys. These assess employee satisfaction in such areas as communication, compensation and benefits. The surveys also attempt to measure overall job satisfaction. The combined findings from these surveys, conducted in the U.S. and abroad, indicate that the most salient link to overall job satisfaction and low turnover is communication within the firm.

The interview data and attitude survey data, combined with our experience with clients over the past fifteen years, have prompted us to identify five areas of communication skills essential to successful project management. These are:

  • client contact (interpersonal communication, listening, self-presentation)
  • presentation and public speaking
  • conflict management
  • negotiation
  • writing

Client Contact Skills

Engineers and scientists in general tend to look at the world in quantifiable terms. Unfortunately, the clients with whom project managers deal are not often technically oriented. Thus, training that helps project managers with such skills as effective listening, providing appropriate and timely feedback and presenting themselves in a way that makes the client comfortable is essential.

In the 1990s, as jobs become more and more competitive, the project manager who can combine superior technical competence with strong client contact skills, will submit the winning bid time after time.

Presentation and Public Speaking

This is one communication skill whose time has come. Firms are increasingly realizing the importance of an effective presentation as they go out into the marketplace to seek new work.

A winning presentation, they know, has to be clear to an audience unfamiliar with technical terms. Often a client will not fully understand the demands of a given project. The presentation has to make those demands understandable and give the client enough jargon-free information to make an intelligent selection.

A successful presentation has to acknowledge that the client's demands go beyond technical competence. For example, a project manager may be required to represent the client at community meetings where a project is controversial. The client or selection committee may be judging presentations from a “hidden agenda” of political concerns. To make a competitive presentation, a project manager should have a notion of what those concerns are.

In years of successfully coaching short-list interview teams, we have found that the hardest thing to convince project managers of is that the technical competence of the firm is no longer an issue once the team has made the short list. The two or three firms on the list are all technically competent. The client's decision will be based on the messages a team delivers in the presentation, messages about how well the team works together, how informed the client will feel throughout the job, how seriously the team takes the job and, most importantly, how well the project manager is able to manage the project and the team.

Solid technical information, of course, always has to be part of a presentation. But the non-technical aspects of job performance are equally important.

Successful project teams spend time analyzing clients to determine what their perceptions of projects are and what they will be expecting of the teams they finally select.

Conflict Management

Anyone who has ever worked with people knows that problems inevitably arise due to different schedules, changing demands, unforeseen circumstances, etc. A project manager who expects conflict and knows how to defuse it will always be one step ahead of the competition.

One of the most frequent failings of project managers is to put off dealing with potential conflicts over schedule and budget. When clients finally hear about problems, those problems have grown to disastrous proportions. Both parties tend to become defensive and the working relationship deteriorates.

Project managers need to know how to present negative information and still maintain a positive relationship with the client. No project is a “one-shot” effort. A firm's profitability hinges on repeat business. A project manager who knows how to give the client bad news in a way that does not threaten a continuing relationship is essential.


Unfortunately, many project managers see negotiations as a situation where one party must lose in order for the other to win. A successful negotiation, however, has a win-win outcome. In this kind of negotiation, the emphasis on developing lasting relationships with clients and with co-workers. The objective is always a fair deal for everyone.


Never write anything you wouldn't want to read in court, the adage goes. That may be extreme, but it does highlight the importance of writing well and the necessity of considering all the implications of everything that is committed to print.

Few project managers are trained to write effectively. They take the obligatory freshman English course in college and usually view it as an unimportant step to get through on their way to becoming engineers. Then their writing education stops.

While we cannot correct the inadequacies of the education system, we can train project managers to improve their writing.

In the hundreds of proposals and writing samples we have reviewed, we have found numerous errors that reflect on the impression a firm gives its clients and potential clients. The problems are not all related to proposals; everything a firm sends out under its letterhead contributes to the image it presents.

Project managers do not need to be able to write publishable prose, but they do need to know the fundamentals of good writing in order to get their ideas across. Unlike much spoken communication, the written word is almost impossible to revise or amend. Getting it right the first time is critical.


With communication skills so crucial and their lack so obvious, why are firms not rushing out to get the training their project managers need? We submit five typical reasons.


With the many demands of their jobs, project managers feel they do not have time for one more thing, even if it is training in the skills that will make them more effective. Senior management, too, does not like to see time spent away from client work. Our research among design firms shows that project managers are almost universally overloaded. Taking time for technical training is difficult. Taking time for non-technical training is almost impossible.


When budgets are tight, training and human resource programs are often the first areas to be cut. Even when money is available, allocating it to training is difficult because of an ingrained skepticism about the value of such a course.

Lack of Familiarity

Rampant among engineers is the perception that training in interpersonal skills and other non-technical areas is too “touchy-feely.” People accustomed to dealing with numbers and facts have difficulty taking seriously such intangible concepts as listening, providing feedback and defusing conflict.


Humans, being creatures of habit, do not respond to the need to change. However, as The Wall Street Journal suggests, an inability to adapt is an increasingly prevalent cause of failure for managers. Project managers may ignore the demands of clients simply because they are comfortable with outdated modes of management and interaction.


Learning and practicing new ways of interacting and working are bound to induce fear in the most technically competent project manager. The skills they have prided themselves on are now clearly not enough for success. These people must learn an entirely new set of management skills. They are nervous and take perceived failure much more seriously than do regular students.

Nonetheless, in our research in organizations, we have found that the vast majority of employees in design firms want more training and feel that communication skills are not emphasized enough.


Finding ways to provide training despite all the obstacles is a challenge. We have identified several options that different firms have found workable.

Training the Trainer

One way to reduce the cost of training is to develop individuals in the firm who can become proficient enough to train their co-workers. These trainers must be carefully selected. They need to be articulate and interested in the material and to have rapport with their colleagues.

The participants work with a professional trainer or trainers to develop teaching skills, work through teaching problems and challenges and work at understanding the curriculum. The professional trainer or training firm, in conjunction with the management of the client firm, develops courses appropriate to the needs and skill levels of the client's employees.

Condensed/Concentrated Training

Getting a large amount of information to participants in a relatively short period of time is appealing to some firms. For example, thirty-two hours of training over two weekends (Fridays and Saturdays) can cover the basics of communication skills. Also in this scenario half the training is done on the employee's time.

Weekday Training

Those firms that believe the messages presented in training should be fully endorsed by the firm usually put their project managers in courses during prime weekdays over a period of time.

Periodic Training

Offering one course every quarter over a period of a year or so allows employees to schedule in advance of projects and to apply the concepts from one course before the trainer returns to give the next one.

Individual Coaching

When they are preparing for a presentation, project managers are particularly motivated to succeed. This is a good time to bring in a trainer. The project manager will see imminent practical application for the concepts and will also see immediate improvement in the level of skills.


No correct formula for conducting training exists. Our point here is that there are ways to get around the problems that inevitably arise when a firm tries to plan and schedule the types of training its employees need to succeed.

One final point needs to be made. It is that training cannot be viewed as a one-shot effort. If behavior is to change, training must be constant and consistent. It must be endorsed by management. Participation needs to be encouraged and rewarded. Project managers should be able to apply new concepts immediately to their work and to integrate those concepts with the knowledge they already possess.

When training meets all these criteria and is followed up and reinforced, it can make a difference in the quality of project manager a firm sends into the challenging marketplace of the 1990s.



John Simonds is president of Martin-Simonds Associates, a Seattle-based management consulting firm working exclusively with design clients. Mr. Simonds has worked with major design firms, helping them plan for growth, evaluate diversification opportunities, develop successful marketing strategies and improve profitability. He has also worked with AIA, ACEC, SMPS, PSMA and many other organizations of design professionals to develop workshops and seminars.

Mr. Simonds founded Martin-Simonds Associates in 1976. Prior to that, he was a vice president with the American Management Association and in executive management positions with AT&T, General Electric Company and the state of Vermont.

He is a graduate of the University of Vermont with graduate work in business administration and organizational psychology.

Margaret Winch specializes in the coaching of short-list interview teams and in communication skill training. She has an MS in organizational communication and research methods from Purdue University.