Project management is not always considered a soft skill. Hosts Dr. Tobin Porterfield and Bob Graham discuss its role as a soft skill and discuss the criticism.

What Project Management Is

Bob Graham ‘1:06’: We should probably start out first off with defining what project management is and explaining why it fits into our list of soft skills because most people, or some people, might be thinking that they can take a course of project management in college. Why are you saying it’s a soft skill? 

Dr. Tobin Porterfield ‘1:23’: Let’s start that up. Let’s start with what project management is because we often see the term a lot. We see it in job advertisements. It’s prevalent out there. The term is often misapplied and misunderstood. A lot of time people say that it’s time management. Project management certainly has elements of managing your time and your resources. But it is another animal from what we consider time management.

Routine Tasks

Porterfield ‘1:55’: When I look at project management and I teach a lot of courses on it, I start my students with “Look, our whole lives, our work lives, our home lives — you can really bring everything you do into two areas: either routine things, the things I do everyday. I fill out my timesheet, I check my voice mail, I go through my email, I do my report, I do month-end close. There are things we do that are routine, that we just do. It’s what we do in our business world that just keeps the dollars flowing in. We sell appliances or we develop apps and we launch them. It becomes very routine.

When It Becomes a Project

Porterfield ‘2:31’: But when something moves to the elevation of being a project, that’s important. To be a project, it has to meet a couple of criteria. It has to have a start date and an end date. There has to be a time component. We need to get this done. A big one is that there needs to be a specific deliverable, a definable thing, so that when we are done we know what we really accomplished. The third one is a really easy one. That is that it uses resources. But almost everything we do uses resources. I kid my students by saying that me losing 30 pounds is something that needs to happen and it’s a project. But it’s not really a project because there isn’t a start and end date. So it’s not a project. In reality, it’s never going to happen. That’s what we see with organizations. They need to keep the routine going. They need to keeping doing what they do.

Executing projects is how they move the organization forward.

Porterfield ‘3:30’: It’s how they launch that new project, open that new location. For us as individuals, an individual project for us might be to complete a certification, to write that book that you always wanted to write. Projects fit that definition of start and end date, use resources and a definable outcome. They need to be treated differently. There’s a mechanical skill set to project management.

People Skills in Project Management

Porterfield ‘4:00’: There a whole lot of people skills issues that are in project management that in order to get things done that integration has to happen. That’s one of the reason why it earned a place in our list of soft skills.

Graham ‘4:14’: You looked at all of the academic literature you could find to create our list of 55 soft skills. Didn’t you find some researchers who had clearly put project management in the list of soft skills, not technical or hard skills?

Porterfield ‘4:34’: Yes. We didn’t just put it under our list although it’s an area that’s important to us. Studies were done that said project management clearly is a soft skill. Some could make the case that it’s not because in some fields like engineering and some business fields and some IT fields that consider it a hard skill. It’s an important technical skill, and learning how to design a project, to do a Gant chart, that network diagram and time estimates. There’s a mechanical-technical aspect to it, but those technical requirements are not universal across fields. Even within business, where we looked at a lot of Indeed.com job postings, we saw hundreds of occurrences where companies were asking for project management skills specifically specifically across marketing and engineering jobs. Btu still within academic training, when people are earning their degrees, even across engineering, project management does not occur across all engineering disciplines. Even in business, we normally only see it in supply chain management, MIS. We don’t see it in accounting and finance and other areas where it’s a skill that we’re expected to have.

Interconnections

Graham ‘5:47’: We can at this point tell people that they have to accept that project management is a soft skill for the purposes of this podcast and for your own benefit. Thinking of it as a soft skill probably makes it more valuable to you because you can look at it within the context of soft skills and how you interconnect with people, which is really the name of the game anyway. 

Because it’s all well and good that you can manage a project, but if you can’t do it with other people, it’s really going to limit our ability to be effective any organization of any size.

Not Certified, But Still Managing Projects

Porterfield ‘6:23’: We have experienced in actually being project managers while our titles never had that in them. It’s part of what we’ve done in many career opportunities, certainly in our educational/academic careers. We have routine tasks: I have to go in, I have to show up and teach my class, I have to grade assignments, I have to prepare that exam. That’s the routine. I just need to do these things as part of the job I do. It’s what we are expected to do. Porterfield ‘6:53’: If we didn’t do more, if we didn’t develop new curriculum and do new research projects, our organization wouldn’t move forward. We’d be teaching the same thing we were teaching 10, 15, 20, 30 years ago. The business world wold have moved forward and we’d be still using those overhead glassine on the overhead projector. We have seen things change, and we had to convert what we did to this new approach. We had to change what we’re doing. We’re going to introduce new courses, which requires a series of steps. I think we are good where the projects are different, but I think we need to dig in a little bit. We have learned as we do projects that it’s great to know the steps and the process of what has to occur.

It’s the people, the ability to motivate a group of people that makes the difference between a project being successful.

Porterfield 7:54′: Whether it meets that end date, it meets those stated objectives of what it needs to look like, it mostly comes down to getting people to buy-in and do their part.

The Soft Skills Inventory

Graham ‘8:09’: I was just going through all of the soft skills to manage a project. You have to listen, delegate, manage teamwork, lead people, adapt to change, collaborate with others — those are just off the top of my head. So you can see where just being a project manager isn’t just the mechanical aspects of managing a project. We should probably make clear that neither of us believes that project management is just telling people what to do. 

We should be talking to people and looking at what we are trying to achieve together and how to allocate those resources, your time and expertise and my time and expertise, to be the most efficient and effective to achieve that shared goal.

Getting More Resources

Graham ‘9:01’: I always worry that people are going to use these podcasts to say, “Hey, people, do what I say. Clean up your office now.” But it would be better to go to people and say, “Hey, if we all clean our offices before the vice president comes to visit our location, we probably going to look better, and that will mean that the chances of us getting raises and additional resources to do new things is available to us.” That’s the difference and distinction we probably need to make. 

Porterfield ‘9:47’: That’s a great example because projects can be these massive new locations. If it has a start date and end date it’s a project. The boss is coming in two weeks and we need to have this place ready. There’s a date, and what does ready look like. It looks like everything is filed away properly. We can treat small things as projects.

Yes, Project Management Fits Every Group

Porterfield ’10:12′: That brings us to another thing that comes up in our discussion of project management. We have four groupings of the soft skills — Individual soft skills (Episode 5), the Nexus soft skills we use to talk and integrate with another person (Episode 6), and we have the Group soft skills (Episode 7). But we put project management up in the Enterprise skills (Episode 8), which are the highest level of soft skills used by leaders of organizations to lead change. We found in our study of soft skills in job advertisements that individuals were required to have project management skills. But we intentionally moved it to Enterprise. Bob, tell us understand why?

Graham ’11:48′: When we talk about project management, we’re putting it in our Enterprise grouping, which is the grouping where we are at the highest level of leadership within an organization. We are in that strategic area. We are trying to build the vision. We are trying to achieve bigger things. It’s not daily tasks. It’s organizational improvement and organizational change that is our approach. In that area project management is really about allocating resources big and small, and as you are a leader, you have a limited number of resources. You have only so many employees. You have to maximize the use of those employees and also your resources, which are also limited. 

Allocating Effectively

Graham 12:31′: If you are operating a warehouse, you can’t run it more than 24 hours a day. There’s a limit there. Many operations can’t run it more than 8 hours a day or 10 hours a day. Project management when you start to apply those constraints to it becomes more of a leadership issue and less of a low-level, entry-level issue. 

Project management is much more about how an organization is going to use project management to achieve its goals and to grow with the right structure to achieve things in this timeframe.

Graham ’13:12′: For instance, if you are developing a new product. If you are creating a new product, you have a lot of steps. You have to figure out what that product is, how you have to source the materials, your timing for that. Marketing has to be involved. Pricing, finance, shipping, packaging — all those things are part of it. That’s a much higher level than any person that would be in an entry-level job could manage. That’s going to require people at all levels of the organization working together to set deadlines. We need two weeks to get the boxes to put the widget in. And the shipping people might say that if it’s going to take two weeks, that’s going to put it right in the middle of our holiday rush. We cannot do it then. That won’t work. Leaders in the organization have to referee those various concerns and constraints and come up with the best strategy for the overall organization to achieve that goal that they set out on with that new project.

What We Know

Porterfield ’14:13′: Project management is such an interesting area because I do believe that as an individual I should be looking at my work and parsing out what is a project and what needs to be treated differently. It’s very likely a smaller project, but one of the items we have always encountered when studying and teaching project management is there is not a recognition of the value of project management as a technique from the highest levels of the organization, then it’s going to greatly limit our ability to really use project management to launch those big initiatives. That’s also what tipped us over to say that project management is more than just working for the individual. It works with a team and a group. It goes with all three of those groups. But it’s got to be at the Enterprise soft skills level. It has to be alive at the top if it’s really going to have an impact on the organization.

Project management lives at many levels but if it’s not at that top level, we’re really going to have a problem.

Next Week’s Episode 

Graham ’16:05′: Next week, we will address another soft skill and how it fits into our work lives and why it matters to an organization’s growth.

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