Why IT Should Focus on Soft Skills – Part 2

Soft skills are especially important to a Project Manager when working with stakeholdersFour years after I completed my PMO assignment for a large government department, the primary stakeholder and I were still in communication. Business-related? No. Just keeping up with each other’s lives. We even wagered on the 2014 Olympic hockey and curling titles, and I’m pleased to note that my Canadian teams took all four gold medals.

Ten years after completing a project for a government agency, the department’s former CIO (the technology stakeholder) and I still occasionally chat and exchange lighthearted memes over Facebook.

Thirty-six years (yes, you read that correctly) after implementing a system for an organization, my wife and I still have dinner and an evening of entertainment with the Subject Matter Expert stakeholder from that project. We plan this each time we travel to their city on vacation. We rarely mention the “good old days”, preferring to brag about how well our kids are doing and generally staying in touch.

I have dozens of such examples. Over the years I purposefully maintained contact with the stakeholders of many of my projects long after I moved on to my next assignments. These were people whom I valued greatly. They were instrumental in the success of their respective projects.

Did I do this for selfish reasons? Absolutely not! Yes, on occasion I was privileged to have them provide a project reference for me. But more importantly, I genuinely liked and respected these people. In engaging with them in their roles as stakeholders, we developed a rapport that went beyond the typical client-vendor relationship. We became friends.

In my previous article, “7 Methods to Effectively Engage Stakeholders”, I lament the fact that most Project Managers I have worked with are inept in communicating effectively with stakeholders. In their “blinders-on” quest to meet the project deadlines and stay within budget, they often neglect developing relationships with their stakeholders. Rather than viewing them as assets that can “grease the skids” to smooth the path for the project, they often resort to using them as needed. Often, they are an after-thought.

In that article, I also criticize Project Managers for their lack of understanding of how to communicate with their stakeholders. Stakeholders are typically higher-level management with organizational or corporate responsibilities, of which the project is only one. Over the years I have observed that:

  • some stakeholders are meaningfully engaged in the progress of the project, while some are disinterested;
  • some have competing goals and objectives with other stakeholders, while some are aligned;
  • some are highly political and well-connected, and some rely on their ability to influence;
  • some are supportive, while some are resistant, even antagonistic.

Stakeholders are not fulltime project staff. Nor are they under the direction of the Project Manager. They are typically not even aware of what occurs on the project daily, nor should they be. Their goal is to have a successful project for the overall benefit of their organization.

In my article, “Why IT Should Focus on Soft Skills”, I present skills that, in my experience, are essential for a Project Manager to be successful. These skills are critical to developing the people aspects of project management within project leadership.

They are even more critical – and nuanced – when dealing with stakeholders.

What are these skills that are such valuable assets for Project Managers? How might they be fine-tuned for interactions with stakeholders?

  • Public speaking – the ability to present in front of a group clearly, succinctly, and tailored to the audience and purpose. In speaking to stakeholders, it is essential that the Project Manager thoroughly understands his audience.

    With few exceptions, presentations should be concise and meaningful. Project Managers must not give into the temptation to recite all the detail that they are so fond of. Stakeholders want to know:

    • What is the project status in relation to timelines and budget?
    • Is the organization receiving full value?
    • What significant accomplishments happened this week?
    • What will be completed next week?
    • What risks or issues need their support?
    • I noted “with few exceptions” above. I have, in fact, had stakeholders that wanted to know everything. I therefore supplied more detail in my presentations, being careful not to use jargon or project-ese.

On the other hand, I have had stakeholders that liked to multi-task by checking email during my presentations. For them, I provided short stories and memorable facts about our progress. I occasionally sensationalized risks to hold their attention and garner their support.

Disinterested, antagonistic, politically motivated – I’ve had all types of stakeholders in my audiences and learned to tailor my speaking style and content to them.

  • Writing skills – the ability to clearly and succinctly present information and ideas in writing. The ability to tailor written communication to the audience and to the purpose for the writing. Just as for speaking skills, it is essential that Project Managers thoroughly understand their audiences.

    For example, I learned to tailor status reports to both the bottom-line oriented and detail-oriented stakeholders. I developed a format that provided a half-page summary of essential information for the bottom-liners. Several pages of supporting facts and detail were attached to this summary for those who wanted the detail.

    The stakeholders I worked with required that I use complete sentences in formal correspondence such as status reports, memos, and emails. Sentence structure and word choice was to be at a 12th grade or college reading level. Proper punctuation and paragraph breaks were expected.

    Text messaging was typically frowned upon as too informal. Most did not subscribe to instant messaging.

    However, there is a further distinction when writing to a more senior management audience such as stakeholders:

    • Stakeholders speak in terms of impact and value. Project Managers prefer to talk about process.
    • Stakeholders want to hear the main points. Project Managers love detail, no matter how inconsequential.
    • Stakeholders are interested in the future of the project and system. Project Managers like to dwell on past accomplishments and/or issues.
    • Stakeholders want the bottom-line numbers that affect their organizations. Project Managers like to focus on schedules and project metrics.
    • Stakeholders want clear, concise language in laypersons’ terms. Project Managers use jargon, techno-speak, and idioms.
    • Stakeholders want to hear about their top concerns. Project Managers want to address all aspects of the project.
  • Meeting facilitation – the ability to lead discussions, keep the participants engaged, and effectively reach the conclusions for which the meeting was intended. Like public speaking and writing skills, few Project Managers have mastered the nuances of this skill, especially as it pertains to executive or stakeholder briefings.

    The sub-bullets under Writing Skills above also relate to meeting facilitation skills. Other ideas to keep in mind when meeting with stakeholders:

    • a 20-minute meeting is preferable to an hour long one;
    • being completely prepared is preferable to “winging it”, no matter how well the Project Manager knows his project;
    • an agenda of prioritized items is essential, as is flexibility to move off the agenda if necessary, as is the ability to come back to the agenda;
    • eliminate distractions including the temptation to use electronic devices for multi-tasking;
    • maintain a positive atmosphere, highlight wins and good news; and
    • capture decisions, assign action items, ensure applicable risk items are managed.
  • Ability to read people – the art of understanding body language, facial expressions, gestures, cultural norms, and other such non-verbal communication. An astute Project Manager can quickly understand the level of interest of the stakeholder, her communication preferences, her attitude toward the project (supportive, ambivalent, antagonistic), and other notable characteristics. The ability to read stakeholders and react accordingly is an essential maturing point for a Project Manager.

    Several examples from my own experience come to mind. On one project, we began our first meeting with the primary stakeholder on time, not wishing to waste his time. He immediately stopped us and motioned to his administrative assistant. She brought in biscuits and small cups of espresso for each participant. He began small talk. After 10 minutes, he was all business. Our team took note of this and always reciprocated when he was on our premises.

    On another project, the new CIO and primary stakeholder arrived for his first project status meeting. As PMO representative, I had done my homework and learned of his animosity towards the senior executive of the IT provider, which stemmed from a previous project. We took great care to avoid any potential unpleasant situations.

    On another project on which I served as a very young Project Manager, the senior stakeholder took me under his wing. He helped me learn the organization’s culture and local customs. He even took me shopping for local business attire to help me fit in. Did I push back? No! I accepted his help. From that point forward I was extremely loyal to him. My team ensured that his objectives were always met.

    These necessary skills for IT practitioners are not taught by training firms or in-house trainers. These trainers have not been in these types of situations to be able to pass on these skills to Project Managers. The specialized requirements of the IT industry demand deeper, more specialized instruction by persons who have had significant experience in working with stakeholders.

    IT organizations must step up in developing their project leadership beyond technology and process. The soft skills are the hard skills, but oh so necessary for personal and project success.

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