Soft skills versus hard skills form a part of nearly every conversation when it comes to assessing the suitability of a project team member.
Most often, we focus on the more practical hard skills, keeping soft skills as a nice to have or something on the side.
Even in my line of work, I’m told all the time that my service offerings are “soft skills stuff”. And while I see what people are trying to say, over the years I’ve developed a problem with this definition.
We might not see them as a critical part of our day-to-day success on a project, but soft skills are the things that make us human. They differentiate us from robotically and blindly executing on commands that may or may not benefit our project and its people.
When you’re creating solutions for real people, unpredictability is a reality we need to know how to deal with.
Making sure we’ve got the ‘soft skills’ required to make the hard skills work effectively is essential to building a collaborative and powerful project team.
In this article, we’re going to explore the importance of soft skills and how you can turn them into an asset for the hard skills your team brings to the table.
The problem with ignoring soft skills
When we say ‘soft skills’ we mean the ‘people stuff’. But the words ‘soft’ and ‘people stuff’ really work to dilute any importance of the purpose of soft skills.
On a busy project no one has time to think about applying meaning to broad terms.
When we use the term soft skills, we automatically associate it with something on the side of our main function, a nice to have or a side order that we could take or leave… and leave, is more often the choice.
Something I hate (yep that’s how strongly I feel about it), is when people operate from assumptions.
And while sometimes we have to assume, the issue I have with assumptions on projects is they are made when the facts could easily have been verified. When we are working within time constraints in a project environment, every action taken should bring the team closer to achieving their commitments. Yet when we make unnecessary assumptions, we consume valuable time that may or may not move us closer to our commitments, and at times, it can bring us further away.
How we use soft skills is just another example of unnecessary assumptions made on projects. It’s often assumed that people naturally exercise soft skills.
But if I had a dollar for every time I don’t see them in action… well you know the rest of that saying!
What is a soft skill?
People see soft skills as the same as people skills and as a result, there’s an expectation that they are something that comes naturally to all of us.
But if this were true, then organisations all over the world would not be pumping so much money into improving the soft skills of their people.
So, what do we tangibly mean when we talk about soft skills?
Soft skills are the skills that help us to work effectively with people.
They support us to deliver our message effectively. They help us to connect with our teams and know when to provide and receive support.
They enable us to see problems from our stakeholder’s point of view to deliver more powerful solutions.
They give us the ability to speak up or question when we foresee problems.
They guide us to create and abide by boundaries and to take accountability for what we sign up to.
If we were to categorise soft skills we would include communication, change management, team dynamics, stakeholder engagement and adoption, time management.
Soft Skills versus Hard Skills
The best way to describe the difference between hard skills and soft skills is to see hard skill as the structured framework required to succeed at our role, while the soft skill is the vehicle to move from task to task.
Soft skills are the key to achieving an optimised outcome.
Here are just a few examples of soft and hard skills related to project delivery.
Project Soft Skills
Project Hard Skills
How you can use Soft Skills to bring Hard Skills to life
Example 1: Scoping a project
Hard Skills: To create a workable scope
Challenge: It must meet the needs of the stakeholders as well as be deliverable by the project team
Soft Skills: Draw out the core stakeholders experiencing the problem, find the pain point the project needs to solve, have the confidence to ask questions, know what questions to ask and create an environment where stakeholders feel comfortable to divulge information.
Example 2: A change of user requirements
Hard Skills: Facilitate a decision to accept or reject change of requirements
Challenge: Minimise impacts to committed timelines and budget while maintaining the value of the final deliverable
Soft Skills: Negotiate the necessity of the change with stakeholders, continue to follow scope change process even under pressure, collaborate with stakeholders to understand the benefits and risks of the change from a factual and impartial perspective, and ensure all key stakeholders have an equal representation on the final decision – not just the loudest.
Example 3: A conflict within the team
Hard Skills: Clearing bottlenecks
Challenge: No one is taking accountability, instead they’re blaming each other
Soft Skills: Operate from facts rather than emotion, constructively assess reasons for each delay, consider what each member of the team can do to reduce or clear the bottleneck, assess what external support is required and the impacts to commitments, and once the bottleneck is cleared, undertake a lessons learned exercise to see how things can be improved in future.
Soft skills are really Influencing skills
Is your team strong on soft skills? Or do they need some work?
Hard skills might set the path. But soft skills help us walk the path to success. It’s time to move soft skills off the sidelines and to the forefront of your project.
We’d be better off if we stopped calling them soft skills, and called them influencing skills instead.
Want to bring soft skills off the sidelines?
Book a discovery call with me and I’ll introduce you to a structure for using soft skills successfully with your organisation.
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