By Lynda Bourne
The project management world and the wider business community are becoming increasingly aware of the importance of soft skills. However, as I know only too well from working with clients through my project management consultancy, there’s a big difference between managers being aware of their importance and actually investing in developing the capabilities.
Before most organizations (and individuals) will invest in improving soft-skill capabilities, their value needs to be demonstrated.
A recent report prepared for McDonald’s UK provides a solid foundation for understanding the importance of soft skills to the U.K. economy. It’s likely indicative of the situation in similar economies such as the United States, Canada and Australia.
Soft skills fall into six interlinked sets of competencies, according to a Michigan State University study, “Comparative Analysis of Skills: What Is Important for New Graduates”:
· Communication skills
· Decision-making/problem-solving skills
· Self-management skills
· Teamwork skills
· Professionalism skills
· Leadership skills
To value these skills within the overall economy required some extensive analysis. The overall productivity in the economy was disaggregated into the five drivers of productivity: investment, skills, innovation, entrepreneurship and competition.
The skills driver was then further disaggregated into parts: technical skills, technology skills, literacy, numeracy and soft skills. Soft skills covered the range of capabilities outlined above.
Based on this analysis, soft skills were found to underpin around 6.5 percent of the U.K. economy, and this contribution was expected to grow strongly over the next five years.
The research highlighted that employers rated soft skills above academic qualifications, with 97 percent believing these skills are important to current business success. Worryingly, 75 percent of employers say there is a soft skills deficit within the U.K. workforce.
The report also quotes a range of surveys from the U.S. showing soft skills were ranked ahead of or equal to other competencies, but many job applicants don’t list soft skills in their résumés.
In the U.K., 54 percent of employees have never included soft skills on their CV, and one in five felt they would be uncomfortable discussing their soft skills with an employer.
Deficiencies in the U.K.’s current stock of soft skills were found to impose severe penalties on the economy, causing major problems for business and resulting in diminished productivity, competitiveness and profitability. And over half a million U.K. workers will be significantly held back by soft skills deficits by 2020, according to the research.
Soft skills matter and contribute significantly to productivity. But there is a measurable—and widening—skills gap, and soft skills are underrepresented in skills development initiatives probably because results are hard to measure. Changing this attitude is a major challenge for organizations, business and individuals seeking career development.
How do you think soft skills can be developed?
By Conrado Morlan
All organizations want to achieve and maintain competitive advantage. But when it comes to project management practices, not all organizations are doing what’s necessary to stand apart from competitors. Why? Some are stuck in a traditional mindset.
To elaborate: For years, organizations have looked for competitive advantage through a traditional project management approach that is operational in nature and includes strict controls focused on schedules, budgets and resources. The problem with this approach is that sometimes even when projects meet controls—i.e., they’re completed on time and within budget—organizations don’t achieve competitive advantage through the expected benefits.
On the other hand, some innovative organizations are opting to evolve from an operational to an organizational project management (OPM) approach. This approach conceives of projects strictly as a means to achieve business objectives defined through the organization’s strategy. These organizations have a project and program management mindset at their core. Because of that commitment, their projects meet original goals more often than the average organization.
The payoff is huge, according to PMI's 2015 Pulse of the Profession® report, which was released last month. High-performing organizations—those who view project management as strategy implementation, and support it— waste 13 times less money than their competitors.
Taking It to the Next Level
The results suggest that to successfully take the OPM route, organizations must be committed to creating a culture that views project management as a tool for attaining business objectives stemming from strategy.
They must aim for a project execution approach that is both controlled and agile, in order to adapt to potential strategy changes. To ensure successful project outcomes, organizations taking the OPM approach must also focus on talent management. They should look for project managers who not only have the requisite technical skills, but also can step into more strategic and leadership roles.
Organizations adopting OPM will use standardized project management practices. This process will be supported by an improved project governance process that will ensure projects are highly aligned to the strategy of the organization.
As organizations transition into OPM, they should implement a benefit realization training program that showcases examples of strong, focused project management practices that achieved intended strategic benefits. It helps to share these examples across the organization to reveal the effectiveness of strategic project alignment.
Is your organization in the process of taking its project management approach to the next level through OPM? If so, what changes have you experienced in terms of management and project expectations?
By Kevin Korterud
I’m amazed at how often I receive requests for help creating an effective risk management process. These inquiries usually come from organizations with a risk management process that hardly anyone uses. Stakeholders, program managers, department heads and executives are mystified about why nobody is declaring risks on their projects, which can create the false perception that everything is going fine.
Why does this happen? One reason is that project managers believe making risks visible to leadership could impair their efforts. Another reason is an organizational culture that creates a negative perception of risks. For example, I have seen some highly entrepreneurial companies foster a mindset of rugged heroism, which causes project managers to think they have to fix everything themselves. In this project environment, project managers worry that escalation to leadership will be seen as a sign of weakness.
In fact, there’s no use pretending any project is risk-free. Risk management is an essential part of any project: Whether you’re climbing a mountain or changing a light bulb, there are always risks. For anyone who’s ever been leery about flagging risks, or is just looking for some new approaches, here are five tips.
1. Think of risk management as a way to get what you need, when you need it.
Project managers rarely have the financial or command authority to change schedules or release additional funding—that’s leadership’s job. For this basic reason, declaring and escalating risks enables leaders to provide risk mitigation assistance.
Making risks visible to your leadership gives them enough lead time to provide relief when it is needed, not weeks or months later when unmitigated risks turn into project problems.
2. Don’t forget: People can be risks, too.
I have seen many risk management plans focus entirely on things: systems that might not be ready, processes affected by outside regulatory bodies, estimates that were done in a hurry at year-end budget cycles, etc.
What project managers often fail to consider in their risk planning is that people can also be risks.
For example, let’s say your project sponsor is replaced by someone who has no experience in the subject areas of your project. This lack of experience initially will cause longer decision-making cycles as the new sponsor comes up to speed in the subject areas.
So be sure to include people risks in your risk register—they can affect your progress as much as more inanimate factors.
3. Create guiding principles for risk management.
While there may be a process in place for managing risks once they appear, quite often it is unclear to project managers when and how to escalate risks to higher levels in an organization based on their potential impact.
To create clarity and promote transparency around risk management, the best approach is to set guiding principles that govern the process. The rules should be simple and broadly communicated throughout an organization.
Examples of guiding principles include:
Declaring project risks demonstrates professional discipline that will be recognized by leadership.
A potential mitigation approach should be prepared for every identified risk.
Risks with greater potential impact need to be made visible at higher levels in the organization.
4. Use the 30/20/10 rule of thumb.
In my experience, the most frequent question asked by project managers is how many risks should be identified on a project. For example, a person might feel that a small project should have a small number of risks. But that’s not necessarily true, especially if a small project impacts a large population of people.
One risk management approach I recommend to project managers is the 30/20/10 rule, which starts with a broad slate of risks and narrows them down throughout the life of the project.
Here’s how it works: Identify risks at the beginning of the project that, if realized, would affect 30 percent of the schedule, budget or results. Midway through the project, the goal is to lower the potential impact of risks to 20 percent of the schedule, budget or results. By the end of the project, the project should carry risks containing no more than a 10 percent impact.
5. Don’t forget the bigger picture.
Project managers frequently tell me they would have finished a project on schedule, but team members were pulled into another project. Translation: another project was more important. And the strategic relevance of your project matters just as much as how you manage that project on a day-to-day basis.
To manage the risk of irrelevance, conduct an assessment on a recurring basis of how your project fits into your organization’s strategy and portfolio. Validate the relative priority of the project against other active and pending projects, and check on potential scheduling dependencies that may impact your plans, as well as any resource conflicts that may be triggered by other projects.
What techniques do you use to identify and mitigate risks on a project? If you’ve worked at an organization where flagging risks attracted negative attention from higher-ups, how did you deal with this challenge?
By Wanda Curlee
Do you ever wonder where project management could take you? Believe it or not, being a project manager is excellent preparation for becoming a chief operating officer (COO).
After serving in the U.S. Navy on active duty for more than five years, I had no idea what I wanted to do. I stumbled into a project management role. I am lucky I did, because it prepared me for many different business roles. I am now on my journey from project manager to COO. The road is not simple, and there have been setbacks, but the goal remains close at hand.
To see how project management can help prepare you for a COO role, take a look at this job description. OK, finished reading? Let’s break down the large parts of the description and how they relate to project management.
Lots of similarities
A COO has “overall strategic and operational responsibility.” As a project manager, you drive the project toward the end goal and keep it on track. But you also drive the strategy of the project and oversee its operational aspects. Granted, you are not doing these tasks at the executive level, but you are the COO for the project.
The COO also develops, implements and manages the operational aspects of the annual budget. As a project manager you do all of this—at a project level.
And depending on the size of the project, you may be managing a budget that is far greater than an organization’s. Think about construction of an oil rig, building a high rise, outsourcing an IT department—all of these projects could have a budget larger than an entire company.
Chief operating officers also have to know management operations. Fortunately, this is what you do day in and day out as a project manager. A COO just does operations on a larger scale. But with practice, understanding, and leading larger projects and programs, you will excel at the same skills required to be an effective COO.
Although the job description may not spell it out, many of the soft skills you’ve honed in project management—networking, communicating, leadership, mentorship/coaching and learning from failure—are also required to be a successful COO.
In addition, tangible skills like planning a budget, implementing training, overseeing the project budget and reporting to leadership will serve you well in the C-suite.
A little help from your mentors
As you prepare for a COO role, I’d also recommend finding mentors. Mentors were necessary for my advancement. I suggest finding three of them: one in your chain of command, the second in your organization but outside the chain of command, and the third outside of your organization.
Choose your mentors carefully. Mentors—especially those outside the chain of command and the company—can help you stretch your limits. A mentor can provide suggestions on how to handle difficult situations.
He or she can also provide insight into politics within the organization or how to handle a political situation. Finally, a mentor can provide advice on the next project or program to tackle to put you on the track to becoming a COO.
By Bernadine Douglas
Every team member brings a unique skill set to a project. It’s easy enough for observant project managers to take note of individuals’ varying backgrounds and skills. What’s harder is using different team member talents strategically to aid a project when the going gets tough.
Here are a few tips for practitioners looking to maximize their team’s talents to keep a project on track.
The How. The first step is to get to know your team members. On many fast-paced projects, it may not be easy to find time to have general conversations with people. But if small time slots arise, be sure to take advantage of them. The payoff could be quick: Even during a casual conversation, a team member may share an insight for getting a task done in an innovative way or information about a skill you didn’t realize he or she had.
The What. It’s important to map your team’s skills while keeping potential resource shortages in mind. You want to make sure that one aspect of the project can continue if the point person for that area on your team becomes unavailable. Ideally, you’ll be able to identify a backup on the team with the right skills to step in if necessary. If that proves impossible, you may have to get approval from another project manager in the organization to bring in someone from another project to meet a tight deadline. (This has happened to me.)
The When. Don’t be afraid of being flexible. In a budget-constrained situation, I have had to quickly train a team member on a skill so a project could continue. The key is finding a team member with the availability and willingness to learn on the fly.
Have you mapped your team’s varied skill sets? Have you thought about whom you’d turn to if a highly valuable team member were suddenly unavailable? I’d love to hear your project contingency plans.