The Hard vs. Soft Skill PM Debate

In this article, we will explore the differences between soft skills and hard skills of a project manager. We will also find out which skill set is more important to the project manager in achieving his/her project goals.

Let’s start by defining key terms and concepts that will be used in this article.

Hard Skills: These are technical and specific abilities that relate to the core business of an organization such as writing skills, networking skills, machine operation, business analysis, design, construction, etc. These types of skills are easy to teach and quantify. It often involves the learner learning or improving a skill without having to unlearn a previous skill. Soft skills on the other hand are subjective and undefined. It often deals with our relationship with people such as conflict resolution, communication, listening problem solving, etc. The subjective nature of soft skills makes it difficult to measure; however, results are eminent from final output such as the effectiveness of communication in an organization, relationship among team members, problem solving skills, etc.

We will structure this article as follows:

  1. The project manager’s skills
  2. Soft skills required for successful project management
  3. Balancing soft and hard skills

Analysis of project management skill

One of the major characteristics of a project manager is flexibility. A project manager who understands the processes, tools and techniques of project management should be able to easily adapt and manage any type of project. However, various research (academic and practice) has revealed that while you do not need technical knowledge to effectively manage a project, technical project managers perform better in their field than general project managers.

From the above, we can deduce that while project management skills are necessary for a project manager to excel, technical skills can be seen as an added advantage. The absence of the technical skills does not mean the project would fail. Technical skills are also referred to as hard skills and can be easily developed through training. In getting the right project manager for a project, it is therefore imperative to find a project manager that has the right combination of both hard and soft skills. It is important to know that the degree of hard to soft skills required by a project would vary according to the nature of the project.

For example, while a construction project manager might require an almost equal mix (50 – 50) of both hard and soft skills, a staff development project would require more soft than hard skills. Also, we would realize that the result of a construction project is a building, a bridge, or whatever was constructed and this can be easily quantified. These outputs are also the primary measurement for success of the project. Whereas, a staff development project would be measured by improved efficiency among staff, improved relationship, better communication, etc. These in themselves are abstract and vague to measure. This only justifies our earlier assentation that while the two sets of skills are required, the project determines the ratio of the skill combination required.

Soft skills required for successful project management

As earlier mentioned, hard skills can be easily learned and defined. Oftentimes, the nature of the project would determine the hard skill is required. General hard skill required by a project includes ability to use project management software, schedule planning, effective documentation (chats, technical writing, sketching), etc. Since we can agree that hard skills are defined and almost straightforward, let’s focus on identifying the most common soft skills required for effective project management.

As managers, we spend about 90 percent of our time on communication. If this 90 percent is not spent efficiently and effectively then we have already failed. Here’s a little exercise. Without reading  – further write down the top 5 things you talk about as a project manager.

 

When you check your list, you would realize that you are either solving problems, resolving conflicts, negotiating, planning, organizing, correcting people, preventing errors, etc.

Some people are naturally more efficient and achieve greater results when communicating. These can be attributed to the advanced development of soft skills within them. Here’s the good news: While soft skills are difficult to teach and measure, they can be learned and developed. However it requires conscious evaluation of one’s self and discipline. This is because naturally we human beings find it difficult to unlearn or change a habit that is already inherent in us. The following are the basic soft skills that are required of us as project managers:

  1. Problem solving: This is the ability to look beyond an immediate problem but rather understand the root cause of the problem and proffer permanent solutions bearing in mind that we are not just solving the problem but also making sure that people involved in solving the problems are happy
  2. Conflict resolution: The primary function of a project manager is to manage and coordinate resources. Human resources are; however, the most difficult resource to manage as humans have a mind of their own and are also emotional. When resolving conflict, we should ensure the problem is tackled without any favoritism. We should also take out time in studying the emotions of the parties involved, understand how sensitive they are and communicate your solution in the appropriate manner. We should understand that while we can use scientific ways (hard skills) in realizing the solution, mode and manner of communication (soft skills) is equally very important to achieve the proper solution.
  3. Negotiation: We often need to negotiate for contract and projects. More often than not, after we have proven that we have the required technical skills to handle the job, our negotiation skill is what fetches us the project. Clients often want to be respected, be in control and have a detailed understanding of what is going on even when they have no idea of the technicalities involved for the realization of the project. When negotiating, we should know our worth but understand that this is not an excuse to step on our clients’ ego. They really hate it.
  4. Motivation: It is important for us to ensure that the morale of our team members is always high. Knowing the various motivation factors is a must for all project managers, but understanding how and when to apply them is more important. Since most projects require team effort, motivation techniques that promote teamwork should be prioritized. Individuals with outstanding ability should be recognized and rewarded to ensure continuous performance.
  5. Leadership: A popular argument in today’s management world is the difference between leaders and managers. Although a lot of theories have been postulated trying to distinguish a leader from a manager, there is no clear-cut difference between these two as most of their duties are often interrelated. A good manager should have good leadership skills and be able to create a balance between leadership and management.

Balancing soft and hard skills

As earlier mentioned, there is the need to create the right balance between hard and soft skill in a project. While both are important, the nature of the project and the organizational matrix type (functional, mixed and projectized) would determine the type and level of skill mix that is required. Some project managers believe that hard skills are required for junior project managers, but soft skills are required to be a senior project manager.

Soft skills can be directly related to leadership style and we as project managers often have a variation of leadership styles. While some leadership characteristics are innate, we can always fine tune them, learn, unlearn and relearn in other to achieve the project goal.

Conclusion

Today, we analyzed soft skills and hard skills and their use in project management. We were able to identify their characteristics, establish the difference between them and determine in which aspect of a project or type of a project they would be required. We also explored the 5 basic soft skills that are required by a project manager and discovered that these were all related to communication as this is what an average project manager spends more than 90 percent of his or her time doing.

We conclude by saying the primary function of a project manager is to deliver the project within the agreed project constrain and the organizational goals. While hard skills are always attributed to technical duties and soft skills attributed to leadership roles, these roles are often interrelated and it is impossible to separate them. Neither hard nor soft skills are more important, but we should have a full understanding of both skill sets and know when to use either of them in other to achieve efficiency.

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Comments

  1. I have found through painful experience that a background in leadership and strong soft skills are not quite enough in this job market to beat the candidate with hard skills. Has the candidate migrated a server? Have they least 4 years as a PM in a SCRUM environment? Soft skills are a minimum requirement to approach the table as a facilitator. Hard skills are as easily dismissed as the requirement of an advanced degree.

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