In my previous article, “Why the Resource Management Plan Must Include People Aspects,” I stressed the importance of budgeting for the training of project team members in what are commonly called the “soft skills.”
I prefer to call them the “essential skills.”
I find it ironic that while article after article stress that:
- employers hire college grads and new employees with the following essential skills:
• critical thinking, analytical, problem solving
• teamwork, collaboration, interpersonal
• communication (oral, written, public speaking)
• learning mindset, adaptability
• initiative, self-direction / self-management
• organizational, time management
• strong work ethic
• perseverance, resilience, ability to work under pressure
• emotional intelligence
- but their educational and training budgets (including IT project budgets for employee development) focus on “hard skills” such as:
• IT, computer
• programming (Java, HTML, etc.)
• database management
• mobile computing
• cloud computing
• data presentation, user interface
• network security
• SEO (search engine optimization)
• AI (artificial intelligence)
I get it. “Hard skills” are easily quantifiable. To train developers in the latest version of a programming language is necessary for project success and shows immediate objective results as the new system is developed. “Soft skills”, on the other hand, can only be shown over time through observing the individual’s working style, and even that can be subjective.
I’ve often heard statements on projects like the following:
- “So he’s antagonistic. Find me a better DBA and I’ll replace him.”
- “Some have it, and some don’t. Keep those that don’t away from the client.”
- “I don’t care if he missed the meeting. He worked late; he prefers to program at night.”
Such language betrays our valuing the technical aspects of project delivery over the people aspects.
But if the “soft skills” are the essential skills that employers seek, how do we go about developing them equally as strongly as the “hard skills?” After all, an employee (or in our case, a project team member) can’t show a certification in teamwork, or initiative, or professionalism.
Consider the following five employee development areas. In my estimation, after many years of project work, these are the most essential of the “soft skills” – the essential skills. Consider setting aside project budget dollars to instill them in your team members.
- Communication Skills (oral, written, public speaking)
Project team members of today communicate constantly, and in many ways – texts, instant messages, emails, and yes, occasionally even on their phones. Often the written forms are quick, terse and lacking in any kind of structure or grammatical correctness. As the recipient of thousands of such messages, I would find myself spending more time in figuring out the meaning or the tone than if they had just taken a minute to use a complete sentence or if I had just talked to them.
Communications skills are essential but fewer than half of project staff demonstrate communication efficiency. IT staff seem to be stereotypical poor communicators, which can be detrimental to their careers.
In my project consulting work, I have been privileged to work with project staff to help them organize their thoughts, think through tone and wording so their messages are received accurately, use proper grammar and punctuation to convey professionalism, proofread their messages before hitting send, and read the responses to their messages critically to see where they might have been more clear.
Similarly, with oral communication, I have helped staff simplify their verbal messaging by not over-communicating, by creating conversations with the person(s) with whom they are communicating, and by enhancing their listening skills.
Additionally, staff who wish to accelerate their careers must learn to be good presenters, whether in front of the room or via video calls. In my work with young project team members, I have helped them write and deliver speeches, evaluate their presentation styles, and coach them in the necessary techniques of vocal variety, body language, facial expressions, tone, use of pauses, movement and other such techniques. In a few instances, I have used programs offered by Toastmasters International to help them improve their public speaking skills.
These are not expensive learning methods, and every team member will benefit from their application. The key is to use instructors versed in IT and project work, rather than the cookie-cutter communications courses offered generically.
- Critical thinking, analytical, problem solving
We in IT value analytical skills in our staff. We laud the critical thinker who can cut through the inexact language of her end-users and derive a clever solution. My favorite moments on projects have been in coaching young analysts during requirements-gathering workshops to analyze their clients’ documentation, ask relevant questions of their end-users, question assumptions, dig deeper for clarity and draw conclusions from the gathered information. I truly relished the experience when my teams were commended for knowing their clients’ detailed business processes as well as the client staff on the project did.
Critical thinking skills can be taught, but they are best taught through real-world application. Of course, having strong communication skills (point 1 above) is essential to having strong analytical and critical thinking skills.
I don’t know of any better way to teach these skills than to allocate experienced resource(s) to coach individuals as they perform their tasks.
Some may argue that this is the job of the team leads and additional coaching is unnecessary; but in my experience, the leads often need this skill as much as their team members do. Often their own project responsibilities take away from their time to be able to mentor on the job.
Some may argue that coaching during work performance slows down the project and adds extra expense; but I have found that it results in less rework and greater client satisfaction with the end product.
Internships and field experience are beneficial, assuming that the intern comes back to the organization for additional internships or full-time employment. The problem-solving skills they learn in their college work can be put to practical use on the project, and help solidify critical thinking in their daily work activities.
- Teamwork, collaboration, interpersonal
Teamwork and collaboration are vital to any project team to make daily progress toward the eventual project goal. Interpersonal skills are the grease that accelerate the results to be gained from a strong sense of teamwork and collaboration.
Think of how teams are formed, utilizing the different skill sets of individuals and melding them into the team. Even the client staff loaned to the team bring specific skills. Interaction among the team members result in stronger solutions than if each acted on his or her own.
These days, with focus on study groups and collaboration process in colleges, new employees often come with strong teamwork and collaboration skills. On project teams, these are best utilized once they are acclimated to the culture of the organization as well.
Again, formal training in teamwork and collaboration can help promote inter- and intra-team unity, improve productivity and provide new learning opportunities for individuals. Similar to my caution above regarding the acquisition of communications training, the key is to use instructors versed in IT and project work, rather than the generic team building instruction available in the marketplace.
The fallacy that I have witnessed in project delivery is that one has leadership ability or one does not. True, I have worked for some excellent leaders that might be called “natural born” leaders. But most of the leaders that I have worked for developed leadership skills through working on their own self-improvement. They developed skills like the ones already noted – communication, critical thinking, teamwork, professionalism and others – that rightfully earned them positions of leadership.
Interestingly, IT project work has an uncanny way of helping team members achieve leadership roles. A team member on the requirements-gathering team shows strong analytical skills and business sense, and becomes the team lead for the follow-on system design activities. He or she is able to grasp the full scope of the project and becomes the system development manager during construction. Finally, he or she becomes the overall Project Manager during implementation and ongoing operations.
While I have seen this sort of progression happen, it was not without additional work on the part of the individual to instill self-reinforcing practices to hone his or her leadership abilities. He or she would identify their own leadership style, evaluate their strengths and weaknesses, then engage in learning skills to make them better leaders (e.g. communication, critical thinking, teamwork, professionalism and others).
Also, it is not without additional work on the part of the project to help instill leadership skills within team members. For example, something as simple as helping a resource improve her public speaking skills may be coached weekly to deliver the oral status report to the client. Not only will she gain confidence in presenting, but she will learn the nuances of communicating with client management.
Similarly, a team member who is working on his written communication skills can be assigned the written status report. With coaching, this will improve his writing, and teach him to use proper tone and other distinctions for client communication.
Leadership skills can be accelerated in those team members who show passion and enthusiasm for leading. Project resources can be enhanced to coach individuals during their assigned project tasks, encouraging them in areas where they can practice leadership skills.
Project work involves client-facing activity on a daily basis, and professionalism is essential for project success. A strong work ethic goes hand-in-hand with professionalism. Team members are expected to be punctual, to deliver their work products timely and with excellence, to treat their peers and client staff with respect, to follow direction from their leadership, and to conduct themselves appropriately and with dignity.
I am aware of several firms who hold internal schools for their staff as they progress in their careers. Essential “soft skills” are covered to a certain extent during this promotional instruction, and then reinforced on the job. However, it is the reinforcement that is often lacking. As noted earlier, project resources can be enhanced to coach individuals in improving their professional and work ethic skills daily on the project.
I’ve often stated that the “soft skills” are the hard skills. Of the many projects on which I have worked or for which I had a consulting role, delivery failures or setbacks have typically not been in the technical or process aspects of the project. They invariably were the result of little attention or focus on the people aspects of project delivery.
This is most easily rectified by developing a Resource Management Plan that budgets for the judicious development of the “soft skills” – the essential skills – of the project team members.
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