Acquiring, Improving & Applying Project Management Skills

Acquiring Project Management Skills

Project management as a discipline consists of organizing and managing resources in a manner that these resources deliver all the work required to complete a project within defined scope, time, and cost constraints. A project is a temporary and one-time endeavor undertaken to create a unique product or service. The management of different projects is often very different and requires varying technical skills and philosophy, hence requiring the development of project management as a subject of study, and project management skills as a set of unique characteristics that can help the manager hone his abilities and develop and nurture his management style to suit the efficient handling of projects. The books in the bibliography deal with the acquisition of such skills and cite reference to the ability to generate what they list as the constituents of knowledge, achieved in a three-step process:

The skills required can themselves be classified into two broad categories, and are elaborated on herein –

Preparatory Skills

These are of two kinds again, ‘The Personal Skill Set’ (those skills every project and program manager needs in order to lead their tasks and teams effectively) and ‘The Company/ Customer/ Industry Skill Set’.

The books define ‘The Personal Skill Set’ as those task skills and team skills which are classified as problem solving, leadership, ethics, and presentation skills. In addition, independent research from multiple sources offers the following skill sets as those required by a successful Project Manager, which are independent of the Project or Program - Managing Vision & Purpose, Strategic Capabilities, Dealing with Ambiguity, Business Acumen, Functional Excellence, Drive for Results, Customer Focus, Timely Decision Making, Innovation Management, Takes Ownership, People Development, Interpersonal Effectiveness, Building Effective Teams, and Ability to Withstand Pressure. Part of these are naturally ingrained, but can be developed concertedly overtime with commensurate education, effort and experience.

‘The Company/ Customer/ Industry Skill Set’ consists of three groups of documentation - the first group (used by your company to convey the policies, plans, processes, and procedures established by management to control the business of the company), the second group (the documentation used by the customers with whom the company does business), and the third group (documentation of organizations created to establish standards, processes, and procedures for specific equipment or industries). These skills can only be acquired through thorough study of the necessary documentation, as they are technical in nature and require a familiarity with the subject material.

Project and Program skills

As the types and characteristics of projects and programs differ, so do the various skill sets required for them. The project and program skills can however be classified into five broad categories according to the bibliography, as follows –

  1. Basic Skills - The basic-level manager coordinates or supervises a single-disciplined task of low risk and is responsible for applying the project management process to ensure that the technical task is accomplished within the cost and schedule parameters established. This requires the hard skills.
  2. Advanced Skills - An advanced-level manager leads both intermediate projects and large projects which differ from the small project in the numbers of people involved, complexity and potential risk
  3. Expert Skills – An expert level project manager is involved with customers outside the enterprise under the aegis of a legal contract that binds the enterprise to the performance of the program. The expert level manager must have business and contractual subjects in addition to the previous and may include sales techniques and proposal preparation.
  4. Specialty Skills – Includes all the above and an added specialization in a specific area which may include new technology or a new product is vaster in scope or application.
  5. Principal Skills – Is essentially a strategic manager role, encompassing all the above and thence the ability to handle any project or program the enterprise has or may have. The task is management-oriented and requires technical knowledge.

The acquisition of these skills starts off as being acquirable through education and formal training, and with time and an increasing skill level demands practical experience as a prerequisite to the nurturing of basic skills to advanced skills.

Improving Project Management Abilities

The improvement of project management skills can be clubbed within broad categories based on the techniques for improvement and the skills sets one desires to hone. In all, this involves the expansion of knowledge in the project management and later specialist technical domain, in learning through training and experience, and in the improvement of the individual personality to best ingrain the project manager skill set described above. The application of these techniques of improvement, as mentioned, depends on the type and level of skills the individual seeks to improve. This can be elaborated on using a simplified diagram, exhibiting that in moving from improvements in basic skills to principal skills, the role of education and practical experience are traded-off. As the project manager moves from basic to higher levels, however, one must keep in mind that the education and experience earned are cumulative in nature, and this diagram does not imply therefore that minimal education is required at a principal level.

Knowledge expansion requires an awareness of the current skill set and formal or informal learning to broaden it and bridge the gap between current and requires skills. Formal education could take the form of certification. This then covers the expansion of knowledge and education. Improving abilities involves an understanding of the personality type of the individual as the cornerstone to developing the personality, attitudes and methods critical to success as a project manager and training through self-help or workshops to develop these abilities (constantly improving, reviewing and enhancing performance). As indicated, at the same time, these must be applied for improvement by gaining initial experience (possibly through mentoring) and continuing to acquire project management experience.

Applying Skills and Abilities to Projects and Programs

Based on the type of project manager as classified by skill set, and the variety of projects and programs offered by the organisation, the project manager, in each individual project, gets the opportunity to utilise his skill set, develop his skills and learn new skills. The complexity of the project with regard to its characteristics is based on the manager’s ability to leverage his skill set and successfully apply skills he has acquired in the past, or those he is in the process of improving or learning at the moment. Thus, it becomes imperative to match the project or program requirements with the skill sets of the respective project managers. The five broad categories of skills again provide a framework in the bibliography (as depicted in a diagram by Ronald Cagle, re-illustrated here) to match skill sets with adequate project categories -

Based on the skill set level, the project manager is selected or chooses the program, and then applies his skills through the various stages of the project. Akin to other group formation and task-oriented processes in organisations, the soft skills and technical skills are applied through the grouping processes of forming, storming, norming, performing and adjourning. It is mainly in the storming to performing stages that the technical skills play a predominant part while the softer management and leadership skills cited earlier as preparatory skills are applied throughout the project life cycle. A relevant analogy from the bibliography charts the application of these skills in the project life cycle as well – Initiation (management staff is the customer), Planning (input requirements, abbreviated Project Plan, budget and task allocations), Kick-off (approval), Execution (entire physical task, ending with the test period), and Closure (customer satisfaction). Thus project managers apply their skills based on their skill set levels through these stages, and learn and improve their skill set in the process of application.