Programmes fail when project managers lack soft skills, argues COMDIS-HSD Consortium Manager, Libby Clark, at Project Management in Practice Conference.
Last month, I travelled to Boston, USA to present at a panel session on soft skills in project management at the annual Project Management in Practice conference. Incorporating communication, interpersonal, influencing, negotiation, problem solving and leadership skills, soft skills are increasingly recognised as critical to project success, but are often not prioritised.
The premise I put forward to the panel was that technical competency on its own is not enough, and that projects and programmes fail or operate far below optimum capacity when project managers do not demonstrate a strong suite of soft skills. Projects are not ‘business as usual’. They are temporary, unique, cross-functional and, because they often involve change and uncertainty, come with a higher level of risk. When things go wrong with projects they usually go wrong quickly and can be hard to get back on track. A good project manager needs to act quickly by asking difficult questions, considering the facts and then taking decisive action. Building good relationships, exploiting the huge value in face-to-face communication and continually demonstrating the benefits of working within a project management methodology (particularly to those who doubt its efficacy) are crucial skills. After all, what use is a Gantt chart if no one understands what it is, why it is relevant to the project or how to respond to the information contained within it?
My panel followed the opening keynote by Dr Jeff Sutherland, meaning I was lucky to have a captive audience! Fellow panel members were Dr Teresa Lawrence of International Deliverables and Pamela Campbell and Mike Cipriano, both of Boston University. Teresa expertly chaired our session, giving each panel member time to present their key thoughts before she facilitated a Question & Answer (Q&A) session with the audience.
COMDIS-HSD is a complex international programme and my presentation gave me the opportunity to talk about the work we do and how I approach and tackle the challenges that are inherent in a programme of this size. The Q&A session was excellent and we worked well as a panel, each of us taking a lead on a particular area of practice or expertise, in order to provide delegates with clear and comprehensive responses to their questions and issues. I’m a very pragmatic person by nature so I tried to focus on giving practical, concrete ideas that delegates could take away and implement in their own setting.
The rest of the conference offered great food for thought. Every session gave me something to take away and consider or implement in my own day-to-day practice, and networking time with other project management professionals gave me new insights and contacts.
And my take home message? Projects come and go, some are short lived, others develop and change over time, but the human element remains the same. Regardless of what you are working on and where in the world you are based, the challenges of working with people to build strong, coherent and high-achieving teams remains a major challenge of projects and programmes. Project managers ignore this critical aspect of project work at their peril!