Tuesday, April 29, 2014

What is the Most Important Skill for a Project Manager to Have?

Srini was a veteran project manager, but had never coached a junior project manager before.  Sarah was a newly hired junior PM who had the right credentials and some experience.  They were at lunch and Srini was describing the organization, the key people Sarah needed to get to know, and the background for their project processes.  He was winding down when Sarah asked him, “What is the most important skill I should develop to be a successful project manager?”  With the cynicism that years of political maneuvering had created, he thought, “How can someone be so innocent?”

The introductory paragraph is fictional, but I encounter this question regularly on LinkedIn group forums.  I almost always want to throw my hands in the air and scream at the person who asked this question how they could be so naïve.  Or maybe they are intentionally trying to cause trouble and controversy.  Either way, the question is just So Wrong.

But then I sit back, let my breath return to normal, and pop a few Metaprolol (no, I don’t really do that).  When I’ve calmed down, I realize there is an appropriate answer to this question.  (Before reading further, do you agree that there is an answer?  If so, what would you say is the most important skill for a PM?)

Let’s break this question down.  A PM has to have a variety of skills across several domains:  political skills (for navigating successfully within an organization), social skills (for dealing with stakeholders and motivating team members), emotional skills and technical skills in both the project and product domains.  How can anyone say, conclusively, that any one specific skill in any one of those areas is most important over all of the others?

Further, PMs operate across many organizations, industries, cultures, etc.  And whatever conditions may be appropriate with a specific team, they change and evolve over time.  So how can anyone say, conclusively, that any one specific skill is most important over all these different environments and at all times?

Realistically, they can’t.  Except…

Let’s take a momentary interlude here.  In one LinkedIn discussion I followed on this topic, the comments eventually reached the consensus that soft skills were the most important skill set for contemporary PMs.  I don’t disagree that soft skills are important for success, but, well, doesn’t the question assume that you have the hard PM skills?  And that if you don’t have those, you’re not a PM and, thus, the value of soft skills don’t apply?  Or, from another approach, can you say that, universally, soft skills are always more valuable than other skills in all environments at all times?  I think anyone stating that is naïve.  I mean that this way:  there are environments and times that demand other skills that are more important (even if you don’t encounter those conditions very often) and, if you haven’t, then you naively assume that what you’ve encountered is sufficient.

Getting back to the discussion then, what is the answer?  Is it flexibility?  I think that’s a good answer.  The PM often has to be flexible about how they mix and match the skills on a particular project or assignment, but, as good as this answer is, I don’t think flexibility is the best answer.

My vote for the best answer to the question “What is the most important skill for a PM?” is Balance.  Balance so accurately describes what we do:  we have to balance the inflexible demands of the iron triangle of scope, time and money.  We also have to balance our approach to each project to deliver precisely the right mix of soft and hard skills appropriate to that situation.  We even have to change at different times during the project which skills we present. 

If I answer otherwise – if I name any one skill – that indicates that I believe that one skill is universally more valuable than any other skill, which just is not the case.  It is the complete mix of skills, appropriately stirred, combined and presented in the right way at the right time that makes for a successful project manager over many projects over a long and successful career.
© 2014 Chuck Morton.  All Rights Reserved.

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