Sharpen your soft skills in this workshop of underestimated project management tools
This paper looks at the essential soft skills that every project manager should master in order to succeed in his or her day to day job. Soft skills is a topic covered in A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide), so we thought it would be interesting to deep dive into some of the most important soft skills here. Seven essential skills are looked at in detail. Some general descriptions are given, and they are put into context, so that one can immediately grasp where and when they would be used by the typical project manager. Some useful tips and tricks have been listed as well, which will be useful for future reference.
It is all about the human factor and the experience of the skilled project manager, which are crucial to providing the glue for the entire team to work and perform together in harmony. You can have the best tools, systems, and processes, but if the people do not manage to work together, you're in for failure.
In this white paper, we will be looking at some of the most important soft skills a project manager should master to optimize his or her chances for success.
The soft skills that will be handled include:
Decision making and Influencing
There are many more, but we consider these as the core competencies. Master these, and your chances for success are likely to increase.
Skill 1: Communications
Today, communication skills come in many different flavors, and the technical part certainly plays an important role here as well.
First of all, when dealing with people there is BODY LANGUAGE. These are the aspects you can control, and you can influence on purpose, such as your gesture, standing up, or sitting down. Crossing your arms or reaching out a hand, which may influence the way the person in front of you interacts and feels at ease. In order to become an expert in all these aspects, observe other people when they are having a conversation. Can you spot behaviors that may have an impact on the outcome of the discussion? Watch the person in front of you. Ask yourself the question if you could judge his or her mood, even without starting a conversation, just by the way he or she behaves? In many cases you can. Look for signals, which can be positive or negative. Look for signs of interest. Read facial signs and hand and arm gestures.
Then when you have started a conversation, make sure you use the right words; the right “jargon” is often very important. If you are working in a special domain, make sure you are familiar with all the acronyms used in the technical papers about the topic. And make sure your questioning reflects this.
Then there are the listening skills. This is equally very important. You can try and obtain information from your speaker in a supportive, helpful way. Or there is the analyzing way, where you are trying to disentangle facts from emotions. And a third way is to synthesize while you are listening, and guide the conversation toward an objective you want to obtain.
Effective and to the point communication is essential. This should be carefully planned as part of your communications plan. Effective means that the message that is expected by the receiver will of course be part of what will be delivered. If it is not, you will fail and disappoint the opposite party. Also the timing of communication should be respected, and the media these days can be of importance as well. With a multitude of new media becoming available, and many new channels popping up in addition to the classic paper and email channels, one should certainly analyze which media can be of importance for delivering particular types of messages within the team or with external stakeholders.
Some useful tips to keep in mind while dealing with communication skills include:
ALL types of communication are to be encouraged
Strive to achieve CLARITY in your message
Make notes, and use Mind-Maps
Use an OPEN question to gain insight into somebody's character
Pay attention to body language
Use your answer phone messages cleverly
Ask a colleague to proofread your letter or Memo
Skill 2: Negotiating
The second important soft skill is NEGOTIATING.
Successful negotiating, an attempt by two parties to achieve a mutually acceptable solution, should not result in a winner and a loser. Both parties should be prepared to give in somewhat to achieve their goals. The art of negotiation is based on attempting to reconcile what constitutes a good result for you with what constitutes a good result for the other party.
Some basic skills you will need to negotiate include the ability to define a range of objectives, the ability to explore a wide range of options, and the ability to prepare well. You should be able to listen and question other parties, and you should be able to prioritize clearly.
We are involved with negotiations at many times during the day; this could be when discussing pay terms or working conditions; when writing down job roles or areas of responsibility; when we are in a commercial phase to close a customer contract; or, when dealing with such things as deliveries, quality, and prices of products.
When we talk about negotiation, there are different steps we can distinguish.
There is first of all the preparation phase, where the objectives are laid down and a strategy is chosen.
You should clearly know what you want to get out of a negotiation. Only when you fully understand this, you can begin to formulate a plan that will enable you to achieve these goals. At this stage you should take a moment to write down all your objectives and put them in order of priority. Next, make sure you prepare properly. This involves a part of research. Seek out any useful information to support your objectives, and see if you can find information that will help you to undermine the other party's case. Make sure that you know what their objectives will be. A very helpful tip is to assist as an observer in other people's negotiations.
Then there is the negotiation itself with the various steps during the meeting.
Make sure to use the strengths of the personalities on your team to devise a strategy. If possible, rehearse before the important meeting, and decide on the roles within your team. Who will be the leader, the good guy, the bad guy, the hard liner, and decide how you will handle these characters on the opposing team. Make sure the entire team is briefed, and work together to obtain your goal.
And, finally, there is the closing part in which the deal is wrapped up, conditions are agreed on and written down. Watch out for those vital non-verbal signals. Pay attention to cultural differences, and pay attention to changes in tone.
When you are ready, and have explored all the options, come up with your proposal. If things don't go according to plan, you can always adjourn to a later time so that you can re-assess any unforeseen elements.
It is also advisable to think for a minute about what you will do should the negotiations break down, and whether you should consider using outside help or from third parties to step in as a mediator to resolve a deadlock or conflict.
When preparing for negotiating deals, these tips may be useful:
It is impossible to do too much preparation
Be prepared to compromise when you negotiate
Write down all your objectives; then rank them
Which issues are open to compromise and which are not?
Begin with general uncontroversial points
Wait for the other party to finish before responding
Adjourn when an “unknown” element is introduced
Offer small concessions first — you may not need to go any further
Skill 3: Leading Teams
The next soft skill is about LEADING teams.
It is essential to understand how teams work, and what the characteristics of a good team are. A true team is a living, constantly changing dynamic force in which a number of people come together to work. The team discusses their objectives, assesses ideas, makes decisions, and works together toward their targets. In order to work well, it is essential to recognize the strengths and capabilities of every team member.
The tasks and goals for the team should be clearly defined and understood by all; then, it is time to distribute these tasks based on everybody's capabilities.
The leader should create a good atmosphere in which everybody can express his or her ideas and contribute to the goals to achieve. The leader is there only to facilitate this atmosphere, and inspire his or her team, and make sure the tasks are implemented in a coordinated fashion.
To obtain these results it may be necessary to identify the skills of each individual and match them with the expertise you require in your project.
Next you should consider the goal for the project, but equally the goals for each individual because he or she will want to learn or advance in his or her career. Think also about motivational factors, which may be important. Once all these aspects are under control, you are well under way to establishing team trust.
Then comes the time to maximize performance — Get up to full speed, and make sure individuals keep being inspired and motivated. Then when the results become visible, make sure you praise the team, so their motivation is stimulated.
The classic stages of team building, which are Forming, Storming, Norming, and Performing, will certainly be familiar to most readers, and they are equally applicable to leading teams.
When you have to lead a team, these tips may help:
Always choose leaders on merit
Give the team the freedom to make its own decisions
If trouble is brewing, deal with it quickly
Encourage positive contributions from all
Find an easy way of displaying team progress daily
Look for ways to use conflict constructively
Acknowledge and celebrate all team successes
Skill 4: Coaching and Mentoring
Coaching and mentoring use the same skills and approach, but coaching is a short-term task-based and mentoring is a longer term relationship.
I see coaching as a logical extension of training. Training is required to teach the trainee something new: an activity, a process, a procedure, a way of working, and so forth. It is theory based and stuffed with examples. The training can include some practical exercises but these are often limited in time and specifically chosen to demonstrate the new things.
Back in their workplaces, the trainees are required to “translate” this new information to their specific environments and work situations. Without proper support you will see an increase in help desk calls or errors. This is where coaching starts to pay off. Trainees are helped, coached to use the new information, and techniques, in their specific working environment, adapted to their “real-life world”; they feel a certain comfort while undergoing and implementing change.
Mentoring is on another level. The mentor helps the mentee to reach a higher level by passing on knowledge, experience and open doors to otherwise out-of-reach opportunities. The mentor also acts as an example in life and/to work to the mentee. A mentor can also function as a soundboard to the mentee, where the latter can test ideas and viewpoints in a discrete way.
Let's look at the differences between Mentoring and Coaching.
Ongoing relationship that can last for a long period of time
Can be more informal and meetings can take place as and when the mentee needs some advice, guidance, or support
More long-term and takes a broader view of the person
Mentor is usually more experienced and qualified than the ‘mentee.’ Often a senior person in the organization who can pass on knowledge, experience, and open doors to otherwise out-of-reach opportunities
Focus is on career and personal development
Agenda is set by the mentee, with the mentor providing support and guidance to prepare him or her for future roles
Mentoring revolves more around developing the mentee professional
Relationship generally has a set duration
Generally more structured in nature and meetings are scheduled on a regular basis
Short-term (sometimes time-bounded) and focused on specific development areas/issues
Coaching is generally not performed on the basis that the coach needs to have direct experience with his or her client's formal occupational role, unless the coaching is specific and skills focused
Focus is generally on development and/or issues at work
The agenda is focused on achieving specific, immediate goals
Coaching revolves more around specific development areas and/or issues
Some tips for effectively coaching include:
Train your people so they can undertake a variety of tasks
Set an example to your staff by being trained yourself
Set realistic targets – together with your delegates
Deliver praise to a delegate whenever appropriate
Follow up regularly when delegating (weekly)
Appoint a deputy – this may help YOU
Manage your boss
Skill 5: Motivation
MOTIVATION is the next Soft skill.
Today's increasingly competitive business world means that a highly motivated workforce is vital for any organization. Therefore, learning how to motivate others has become an essential skill for managers. We will look here at how to put theories into practice to create and sustain a positive environment.
First of all, what is motivation? Motivation is the will to act. Everyone is motivated by several forces coming from inside. It is essential to understand this so that you as a manager can act on this and influence this behavior. An attitude of “advise and consent” is most effective, and certainly more effective than the more traditional “command and control” approach.
First of all, one should recognize the needs of your staff. Everybody knows Maslow theories on this topic. Take them into account whenever you can, make sure you have the basics right. Then strive for the higher levels. Make sure you understand what the needs of your staff are and assist them in obtaining them.
If need be, make a list of the basic needs at work, and tick off the items that are in place or under your control. Remember that job security is likely to be high on your list, and different people will have the items on this list in a different order. Also, keep an eye open for signs of demotivation; these things can usually be spotted easily.
Some tips that may help in motivating people:
If you don't know what motivates a person, just ask.
Use some form of competition to stimulate team spirit.
Making work FUN, does not mean making it EASY.
Making sure that the rewards you give are the icing, not the cake.
Utilize as many of each person's skills as possible.
Show respect to your staff, and they will show it to you.
Ask your staff if any changes would help in motivating them.
Skill 6: Decision Making and Influencing
Decisions are an essential part of life, in and out of the work environment. Decision makers are those who are responsible for making a judgment – sometimes a crucial judgment – between two or more alternatives.
First of all, decisions can usually be categorized as routine, emergency, strategic, and operational. Based on the type, you may have different sets of criteria to judge your decision, or the ways of analyzing your options may vary.
In most cases your decision process will consist of the following steps:
Identify the issues – what exactly has to be decided?
Undertake the analysis – What are the alternatives?
Evaluate the options – What are the pros and cons?
Identify the choices – Which alternative is the best?
Implement – What action needs to be taken?
The way you handle this process will depend on your style and the corporate culture.
You should always consider who will be affected by the decisions you are making. And, when in doubt, certainly consult your colleagues or peers.
Since a project manager very often has no direct authority over other team members (especially in a matrix organization) his or her ability to influence other stakeholders may be critical to project success.
Key influencing skills may include:
His or her ability to be persuasive and clearly articulate his or her arguments.
High levels of active and effective listening skills.
Awareness of the various perspectives in any situation.
Gathering relevant information, to address important issues, and reach agreements while maintaining mutual trust.
These tips may be kept in mind when you have to make decisions alone or on a team:
Always consider all possible outcomes when making a decision
State your reasons when you don't agree
Ask colleagues or peers if in doubt
Consider all criteria involved in making a decision
Be prepared to accept advice, if you asked for it
Be disorganized in generating ideas, organized in developing them
Capture and handle information wisely
Skill 7: Time Management
Parkinson's Law states: ‘Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.’
This means that if you have an assignment due next week, the assignment will only be finished next week; however, if you have been given 2 months for the same assignment, then the assignment will take 2 months to complete.
Time pressure forces you to complete a task in the given time. If there is no pressure attached to a task, then it will take forever to finish. Therefore, the more time you give yourself for a job, the more time that particular job will take. The more time you're given, the more important a task will seem. A task that has to be finished within an hour isn't perceived important, but a task that's to be finished in 2 months will become a mental monstrosity.
Complexity also rises in relation to the allocated time — the more time allocated, the better the perceived quality of the task should be and the more work your mind thinks it will take, hence making it overly complex and difficult. If you work under time pressure, you have no choice but to do the absolute minimum required to get the task done. Looks like Pareto: 80% of the work can be done in 20% of the time. So, is 80% of the time needed for 20% unneeded results?
‘If you wait until the last minute, it only takes a minute to do.’
What happens when we move back deadlines — once we get past the initial feeling of sweet relief? Research suggests we have a lot of difficulty using our newly found time wisely. We wind up facing the same problem again — the same time pressure, the same stress, and the same feeling-not-quite ready — only now we've gone an additional week, or month, or year without reaching an important goal.
This is where procrastination comes in. When the pressure gets off, we start to find again lots of excuses for not doing what should be done. This might be caused by several reasons, such as: lack of motivation, lack of good insight to solving the problem, missing information/input from others (delegation problem), and so forth.
Maybe Eisenhower can help us to become more efficient. Try to divide your work/actions into important/urgent quadrants and only focus on those that really matters for you.
Ever heard of GTD – Getting Things Done – from David Allen? Process all incoming “things” (emails, tasks, and so forth) via a tailored process. Things are getting done immediately (when it takes less than 2 minutes to do it), gets trashed or delegated, or categorized for later — when time is available. This method looks a bit similar to the agile process: you have a backlog of “things to do” and you choose what will be done in the next available timeframe. So you plan ahead for 2 to 4 weeks, with a daily and weekly review on your activities. When planning, consider two things: “think-time” — required to thinking about solutions, strategies, meetings, and so forth, and “do-time” — required to doing things and to execute tasks and activities.
Finally we have to master our working environment. Some get distracted by a fly buzzing around, whereas others can achieve a high level of concentration in a crowded and loud coffee shop. Know yourself and find out what really helps you to concentrate, focus, and get into “the flow,” as they say. Also, identify the factors that cause distraction and that pull you out of the flow. Some people use meditation techniques; others use sports or music. I personally get my best ideas while driving on the highway.
Manage time wisely. Here are some tips to keep in mind:
Clear up daily, don't leave a mess for the next morning
Organize free and busy time slots in your agenda
Set up an effective filing system
Only keep the ESSENTIALS on your desk
Prepare and plan your meetings in advance
Learn how to use technology wisely
Stop subscriptions to magazines you don't read
Soft skills are extremely important for any project manager to obtain the desired results. The tips and advice offered in this white paper should put you on the right track.
The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) (2013). Difference between Coaching & Mentoring. Retrieved from http://www.cipd.co.uk
Heller, R., & Hendle, T. (1998). Essential Manager's Manual. London, UK: Dorling Kindersley Limited.
Project Management Institute (2013). A guide to the project management body of knowledge (PMBOK® guide) – Fifth edition. Newtown Square, PA: Author.
© 2013, Kris Troukens PMP and Dirk Huyers
Originally published as a part of 2013 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – New Orleans, Louisiana