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by Peter Pearce

“Two plus two equals four … until people get involved”

Ever wondered what it is about a project that can turn, what should be a routine process, into a stress-head’s picnic? Completed late. Unanticipated implications. Unexpected outcomes. Whether it’s building a new manufacturing plant, completing an off-shore takeover, or just relocating the sales office, managing projects requires a particular set of skills and processes.

The question is – how important are people skills?

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Project practitioners are typically good at understanding, applying and executing the core methods, tools and techniques of project management. These skills are essential but not sufficient in themselves to deliver the outcomes required. Project practitioners also need to master the people skills if they are to really succeed in their role.

Yes, managing the people dimensions is what really puts the power into project management.  These are the skills required to be able to communicate requirements, understand different perspectives, and manage and motivate the involvement of the participants.  Without this, it simply won’t happen.

That’s not to understate the importance of the core methods, tools and techniques.  In your organisation how well do your project managers, and your executives managing projects, understand, apply and execute the project management basics?

Firstly, the project team needs to understand and correctly interpret the needs and expectations of the internal and external customers and the operations people who serve them.  What is the process your organisation has right now, to ensure major projects, and even minor projects in core operational areas, gain participant ownership?

Next, they will need to understand, define and communicate the impact of change on people in that division/department, and in other parts of the organisation.  How skilled are your people at presenting the corporate goals and obligations?

Most project teams will work on understanding the interests, motivations, fears and drivers of project stakeholders and what their reactions will be to these factors.  What is your method for defining who the stakeholders are?  Too often corporations will discover long after a project is completed, that key stakeholders, apparently not directly involved, have been alienated.

Then the team requires the skills, knowledge and confidence to effectively present compelling arguments to influence project stakeholders. Remember, depending on the project, your project team may be required to influence senior executives and these powers of persuasion cannot be taken too lightly!

Finally, the team leadership need the skills to understand, motivate, communicate with, coach, evaluate and lead their project teams, i.e. a high level of “emotional intelligence”. How are you upskilling your project team personnel to manage and lead?

When projects fail to meet performance targets it is most often because of these “people dimensions” rather than technical or procedural deficiencies. This is understandable because most project training and development of personnel focuses on technical competencies and not on the people competencies. Both are needed for success.

Once the core project management skills have been imparted, project managers should be supported in developing their skills in:

  • communication,
  • team leadership,
  • change management,
  • performance coaching and people development, and
  • presentation and influencing.

To illustrate the importance of people skills, consider who the Project Managers are likely to interact with: Sponsor, Executive Team, Project Board, Project Team, Contractors and Vendors, their Boss, Key Customers, other Project Managers, Business Analysts, Department Heads, etc.

Here are the key issues for you to address.  Observe the strengths of your different project teams to deliver these, and you will quickly realise where your development requirements are.

  • All communication between project managers and their stakeholders must be two-way to be effective.
  • There is complexity because of the different forms of interaction – the issues, reports, meetings, negotiating, compromising, politicking, competing for resources, co-ordination, etc.
  • There is a range of skills needed to handle all these interactions with confidence and competence.
  • Within the project team, all the usual leadership requirements are necessary: goal-setting, motivating, coaching, training, conflict resolution, performance management and evaluation, teamwork, delegation, follow-up, etc.
  • At higher level, presenting compelling proposals to the board for funding, understanding the WIIFMs (the benefits or “What’s in it for me?”) of key stakeholders, persuading them to attend key meetings and to read reports, negotiating resource allocation, contracting with suppliers, etc is necessary.
  • With the “customer”, understanding the business, listening to needs and understanding requirements, getting good documentation, negotiating change requests and issues, etc. is necessary.

If the project manager lacks skills and confidence in dealing with people, then communications break down, and there is a real risk that the project will suffer.

Some project managers are aware of their own shortcomings in these areas.  However, a lack of confidence to talk with stakeholders, avoiding discussion for fear of inadequacy and conflict, can only bury the issue, with potentially severe impact on the project.

Projects affect and involve people.  Project managers and project team leaders must be able to communicate effectively with people if they are to successfully manage their projects.  Then the projects will be delivered on time with the cost effective and quality effective outcomes required.

The solution. Build your people skills through training, coaching and mentoring. The investment will be soon be realised through project success.

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