Soft or Hard skills? The most important skills of a project manager

Soft or Hard skills? The most important skills of a project manager

The Author:
Oleksiy Shebanov
Oleksiy Shebanov,
Trainer & Managing Partner @E5
Director. Head of PMO @ Intellias
Certified PMP, ICP-APM, TKP

Project management is an activity aimed at solving problems, achieving project goals, and creating value for the end user. In order to achieve the needed results, a PM must possess certain skills, knowledge, as well as modern techniques, methods, and tools.
When a manager thinks about their professional development, he/she may have several questions: What is more important for a PM? And whether Hard Skills or Soft Skills need to be improved first?
In this article, you will find the answers to these questions, as well as learn about the project manager professional development plan and the features of building a career in this field.

The role of a project manager in a team

As a rule, a PM is involved in controlling such indicators of teamwork:

  1. Time to market is the speed of service or product launch to the market. If there is no relevant position on the project, this indicator is usually not controlled.
  2. Productivity is the company’s efficiency. To achieve it, a PM is engaged in building relevant processes and dashboards, with the help of which decisions are made on the further direction of the project development.
  3. People engagement is the people’s involvement in the project, emotional attachment to the company, and the level of staff turnover.
  4. Customer satisfaction. This is the main indicator that demonstrates how much a product or service meets the needs of the target audience.

You will find more about this in our article.

Also, a PM has his/her own mission: to cover business needs, add value to the company, and to determine what is needed to achieve the global goals of their company.

PM’s functions

Various standards describe the following functions of a Project Manager:

  • project planning and progress monitoring;
  • leadership for the team;
  • budget management;
  • Risk management as well as management of assumptions and dependencies;
  • Responsibility for the communication with stakeholders and justification of their expectations;
  • project documentation and reporting management.

Depending on the functions assigned, the level of the Project Manager increases. Their career can evolve in according to several scenarios:

  • From Project Coordinator/Expeditor to Head of PMO/Project Director. This option is classic for any industry.
  • From Delivery Coordinator to VP/Delivery Director/Head of Agile Delivery. These roles are very similar to the previous ones and differ only in the technical skills required and the number of people being managed on the project.
  • From Change Manager to Transformation Lead. This PM deals with transformations in the organization and prepares people for change.
  • Centre of Excellence Expert. This role is suitable for specialists who have decided to give it a try in consulting.

All the duties of a Project Manager for each of these positions are described in the SFIA framework. The skills important for a PM are listed in the Project Management Competency Development Framework book. With its help, you will build a skill matrix.

Project Management Principles

Standards play a big role in shaping the set of skills required for a PM. For example, in PMBOK (Project Management Body Of Knowledge), certain principles of project management are listed, based on which PM skills are developed:

  • Be a diligent, respectful and caring manager.
  • Create a collaborative team environment on the project.
  • Interact with stakeholders effectively.
  • Focus on value.
  • Recognize, evaluate and respond to system interactions.
  • Demonstrate leadership behaviour.
  • Adapt according to context.
  • Embed quality into processes and outcomes.
  • Navigate complexity.
  • Optimize risk response.
  • Embrace adaptability and resilience.
  • Don’t be afraid of change to achieve the desired state.

All of this influences the skills of a modern project manager.

Soft Skills

Lately, the situation in the labour market has substantially impacted the development of technical skills (Hard Skills) in project managers. They have a good understanding of engineering processes, IT frameworks, etc. Based on this knowledge, it is easy to teach PM specific skills for the position: create a project roadmap, build CI/CD, and work in the Jira system.
As for soft skills, usual training may not be enough. To start influencing other people, and to achieve quality communication with them, a PM should perceive the knowledge and have a deep understanding passing it through his own inner world. Therefore, it is the development of Soft Skills that needs to be given primary attention now.
According to the analytics of the World Economic Forum (WEF), PM should have the following soft skills:

  • analytical thinking and inclination to innovative activity;
  • ability to actively learn, use learning strategies;
  • ability to solve problems complexly;
  • critical thinking and analysis;
  • creativity, originality, and initiative;
  • leadership and social influence;
  • use of technology, monitoring and control;
  • knowledge of design and programming technologies;
  • resilience, stress resistance, and flexibility;
  • reasoning, problem-solving, and idea generation.

All these skills need to be developed by every future project manager to withstand the competition in the labour market.

However, the above-mentioned Soft Skills are more of a theory. We will now talk about the practical side of this issue.

Project management: trends 2023

Requirements that a PM must meet to be a true professional:

Trend #1: Preventing burnout

According to statistics, only 15% of managers are sufficiently prepared to prevent their employees’ burnout, despite this being officially recognized as a severe issue of modern teams. To successfully achieve the goal, a Project Manager should:

  • develop and enhance empathy skills;
  • learn to plan your time: each employee must have their own space;
  • be able to prioritize tasks.

Trend #2: Confronting trust crises

Statistics show that only 46% of leaders trust their people in the team. To avoid this problem, a Project Manager should:

  • realize the importance of building trust relationships;
  • purposefully develop trust;
  • model trust from top to bottom.

Trend #3: Managing virtual teams

The ability to work remotely has become a very important factor in choosing a place to work. Recent surveys in this area have shown that 86% of IT professionals are ready to leave the company if they are asked to return to the office. Hence, it’s time to accept the fact of the existence of remote teams and do everything possible for their effective management. At the same time, only 27% of managers admit that they can do this. And here is what is needed to accomplish it:

  • help leaders understand their role in the virtual workspace;
  • develop leadership qualities;
  • create inclusive virtual workspaces that engage the entire team.

In addition to these main trends, there are functions that a Project Manager has to perform every day:
1. To be able to select the team correctly. Ideally, a PM should conduct interviews with each candidate. If we are talking about a large team, then the interviews should be held at least with the applicants for key roles.

2. To delegate tasks. Neglecting delegation can lead to professional burnout of the project manager himself.

3. To bring people to a common solution. To do this, you need to involve the team in the discussion, and collect opinions, while the PM as a facilitator is to remain neutral and ignite the dialogue.

4. To manage team’s dynamics. Each team goes through several stages of formation, one of which is storming. It is characterized by the fact that team members can argue or criticize its primary mission or goals. The task of a Project Manager is to focus on this stage and enable efficient work.

5. To manage conflicts. It is important not only to intervene in conflict situations and resolve them, but also to make sure that your team can cope with them on their own.

6. To work with personal motivation. It is important to find out what the priorities of each employee are and what they wish to improve. Each person has their own key motivator. And this information needs to be considered when working with the team.
7. To not ignore team motivation. This is about team building (including online events), celebrating success, etc.
8. To provide regular feedback. It must be two-way: you need to tell your employees about your perception of their work and ask about their wishes.
9. To understand the state of each person in the team. This can be done in different ways. For instance, ask an employee to answer 3 questions during a one-on-one meeting:

    • How do you define your role in the team?
    • How do you evaluate the work in the team?
    • What would you like to improve?

Based on the replies, you need to draw conclusions about what each person lacks.

10. To build relationships with customers. This is especially important when working with difficult or so-called “toxic” customers. To communicate with them, you need to establish certain rules – this will help prevent manager burnout.
11. To manage stakeholder satisfaction. A PM should have enough flexible skills to identify stakeholders, communicate with them and develop their interest in the project. Also, the manager should have an action plan in case one of the stakeholders does not support him or her.
12. To conduct cross-cultural communication. This is very relevant because now there is a tendency to interethnic business relations. Among the main tips – it is worth speaking slower, it is important to improve the knowledge of foreign languages, you should not use slang.
13. To practice different types of thinking:

  • systemic – a project manager must systematize the work processes for which he/she is responsible;
  • productive – any innovation should be perceived as a product, that is, a PM needs to think about how people will use it, what value or pain it carries;
  • critical – you need to correctly evaluate the results of work, functionality, reporting, etc.;
  • strategic – you should convey a clear point of view to everyone, focus on value, hear what is happening around, be able to make decisions.

14. To implement values and principles of Agile. This is very important because before switching, for example, to Scrum, you need to prepare people’s thinking.
15. To apply Change Management. The PM should adjust the team to changes: train, check the understanding of the process, and stimulate the use of innovation.

Hard Skills

If aproject manager works in IT, it is important for him or her to be able to build SDLC – the software development life cycle. If he/she has a different field of activity, then building other processes will be on agenda.

A PM in IT can perform different roles:

  • Scrum master;
  • Program Manager;
  • Release Train Engineer (RTE) in the SAFe framework;
  • Delivery Manager;
  • Resource manager, etc.

This means that PM is a rather broad concept that requires a lot of hard or technical skills (Hard Skills):
1. Have experience in building a team. The project manager must understand:

  • what specialists and how many of them are needed to create a specific product;
  • how to properly divide them into teams or groups;
  • how to manage communications and dependencies between them;
  • whether it is possible to take one Scrum Master for two teams;
  • whether a service team is needed.

2. To define roles and areas of responsibility. PM should be able to create a RACI matrix or a matrix of duties.

3. To build project organizations. These include teams, projects, programs, and portfolios. Creating different levels allows for more effective measurement of work performance indicators.

4. To constantly improve the team and the project. For example, you should emphasize conducting retrospectives if your team uses Scrum.

5. To manage the external environment. Projects usually exist in a certain environment, and they are not detached from what is happening in the country, or company. Therefore, all this should also be under the control of the PM.

6. To manage project documentation. According to the standards, there is a lot of it, but you only need to use the one that brings value to your project. You should not start building a Project Management Office with documentation. It should support the ecosystem, but it should be a minimal list of necessary artifacts: project description, risk register, stakeholder engagement plan, etc.

7. To be part of the community. Every specialist needs to communicate and exchange knowledge, so it is important not only to participate in various communities but also to be able to create them.

8. To use specialized tools and reporting. For example, effectively apply the burndown chart.

9. To implement risk management. It should be remembered that risk management and risk register are not the same. A risk register is an artifact that helps identify and collect risks. Risk management works when risk mitigation actions are turned into a backlog and they start to be executed.

10. To manage project complexity. For this, it is convenient to use the Cynefin framework. It helps to determine how complex the project you are working on is, and based on that, decide on the optimal way to manage it.

11. To conduct team events such as:

  • Backlog Refinement – clarification of the product backlog;
  • Iteration Planning – planning iterations;
  • Daily Stand-up – daily stand-up meetings;
  • Iteration Review – iteration review;
  • Iteration Retrospective – retrospectives.

12. To teach the team best practices. A PM should have the skills of a trainer, mentor, and a coach.

13. To help solve problems on the project. In each project management approach, these problems are called differently: impediments in Scrum, bottlenecks in Kanban, and regardless of the name, the project manager should know how to get rid of them.

14. To ensure quality and engineering excellence. This is about the technical quality of product development. For this, you need to be an expert in the field where PM works.

15. To communicate with customers. Such communications involve reporting to clients on the product they ordered.

16. To work with teams on backlogs. The manager should be able to work with prioritization tools, help business analysts, and product owners, know specific frameworks, and facilitate workshops with different numbers of participants or even strategic summits.

17. To validate ideas. This process takes place together with managers and product owners.

18. To build roadmaps and project plans. This is what needs to be done at the beginning of work to clearly imagine the expected results of work, key goals, and milestones.

19. To manage contracts. It is important to understand what contracts exist in a specific industry, what they look like and how they differ from each other.

20.To conduct Discovery Workshops. PM should understand how UX, UI, and architecture are built.

21. To create knowledge bases. They will help your team during the project work.

22. To evaluate the project. This means estimating its value, time required, risks, resources needed, etc.

23. To track the time spent by the team. This involves compiling timesheets for each employee.

24. To plan releases. Although there is a separate position of release manager in IT companies, the PM should also understand this.

In order for a project manager to perform his/her duties well, he or she must equally possess the soft and hard skills that are listed in this material. Only their combination will allow him or her to become a professional who can bring real value to the company.

Our training Project Management will help you to systematise your experience and gain an optimal, concentrated set of knowledge for successful project management in any industry, as well as to get acquainted with the specifics of approaches in IT.