There are some things that are practically impossible to learn without actually doing them. For instance, no amount of reading about how to play the piano will eliminate the need to sit down at the keyboard and practice. Likewise, you can study great art for a lifetime, but you will never really learn to paint without actually picking up a paintbrush.
To a large degree, project management is like this as well. No amount of training or education will substitute for on-the-job learning. That is not to knock training (after all, I own a training company that I’m very proud of); but it’s an acknowledgment that there are some things that have to be learned in the classroom of life.
With project management’s surge in popularity, many top schools now offer classes or degrees in project management. These programs are great for teaching hard skills such as how to create the various components of a project plan, or how to account for risk. But many of the soft skills are much more difficult to teach in a classroom environment.
What follows is a list of some key skills that are better learned in one’s career than in the classroom. Every real project management professional—or anyone who manages projects—will benefit by mastering these skills to advance their career.
Great managers also learn to be great delegators. I believe this is a universal truth, right up there with Newton’s Laws of Motion. The problem is, some of the most competent people who become managers find it excruciating to delegate important tasks. Anyone can hand something off, but delegation requires a level of intent and finesse.
Effective delegators know how to accurately describe the desired outcome; they communicate expectations, provide a possible path (only if absolutely necessary), and hold team members accountable for the results. The least effective delegators will give someone a chance but then will take the process back over if it does not go exactly as desired, complaining that if you want something done right, you must do it yourself, or that it’s quicker to do it yourself than to teach someone else.
Failing to grow as a delegator seriously restricts many managers who never rise above the level of their own personal productivity.
In the book Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In, the author astutely points out that conflict is a growth industry. If you doubt that for one second, pick up a newspaper.
When it comes to projects, negotiation is the art of fostering a workable agreement that fits within the project constraints. In reality, a project is a choreographed dance of negotiations from beginning to end. Successful project managers negotiate due dates, budgets, resources, project scope, communication requirements, and sometimes even the definition of success.
On the other end of the spectrum are the project managers who simply accept whatever they’re given, and then make excuses when they’re finally unable to deliver to those expectations. There are numerous approaches to successful negotiations; the ones that work explore and challenge the competing stakeholder demands until they arrive at a solution that all the key parties can support.
3. Selecting the right team
I have never heard of a university class that teaches team selection. The project manager is simply supposed to know how to assemble the right people to get the job done—a completely unrealistic expectation.
Most project managers use RACI charts to break out work needs, then build a position description, and recruit the most qualified people into those positions. There is, however, another effective way to staff larger teams. It involves recruiting the smartest and most productive people you can and then finding a place for them on the team. Jim Collins, in his book Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap … And Others Don’t, describes this as “getting the right people on the bus.” It may sound counterintuitive, but teams that follow this philosophy often wind up with team members who are better lateral thinkers, and more versatile and cross-disciplinary.
I’ve also found a lot of truth in the saying, “If you want to get something done, ask the busiest person you know to help.”
4. Firing someone
Most managers who have had to lead a team for any length of time have had to terminate someone’s employment. This can be one of the most unpleasant activities imaginable.
Many years ago, I had to terminate an employee and I was dreading it. My manager could tell, too. So he took me aside and reminded me that I was not doing this employee any favors by keeping him in a job where he wasn’t able to do good work and to make the impact he desired to make.
Having had more practice in this area than I ever wanted to have, I’ve come to the conclusion that terminating someone’s employment should be quick, objective and unemotional. If you want to watch someone else practice it, watch the movie Up in the Air.
5. Managing up
The entire concept of managing one’s boss can be a tricky proposition. Some people naturally excel at this, but for the rest of us, it’s an important skill to cultivate.
The art of managing up succeeds or fails largely upon communication. The people I‘ve seen practice this skill most effectively keep their boss well-informed about the activities they’re driving and the progress that they’re making, along with their team. The goal here is to communicate in such a way that your boss knows how to help you work at your full potential.
6. Responding to change
For centuries businesses have followed the philosophy that project plans were made by the smart people and then carried out by everyone else. This trickled down to project management, where the project plan became a document that few dared to question. It was often easier (and more acceptable) to follow it than challenge it.
But with the advent of Agile approaches to projects, that philosophy began to shift. In fact, the project plan itself started taking a back seat to the immediacy of the team. One of the key tenants that Agile practitioners value is “responding to change over following a plan.” This is an important recognition that priorities shift, new discoveries are made, and lessons are learned. Put succinctly, things change. The best project managers learn to adapt fluidly to change.
Skills that last a lifetime
The same skills that make you successful at tasks may well work against you when working with people. It takes both hard and soft skills in order to make a project successful. Almost all of the hard skills can be mastered in a few years, but most of us can continue to grow, cultivate, and refine our interpersonal skills for the rest of our career.