The importance of soft skills is unusually high in intelligence-led project management. And underlying it all, is hope and determination.
Intelligence-led project management is an extension to agile project management. It’s used to support high-risk projects with multiple unknowns and shifting goals. It requires a particular culture, where soft skills are as critical as hard ones.
- Fight the unknown in risk identification, with an intelligence cycle
- Survive high risk projects using intelligence methods
- Stop project failures with intelligence-led project management – downsides
In the article below we look at the importance of soft skills for three types of role: leaders, delivery roles and external liaison (for networking).
Three groups: leaders, delivery roles and external liaison (networking).
The project leadership team includes the different types of management roles. They need to work closely together to assure common messages and quick decisions in fast moving situations. And they need a tireless focus on searching for unknowns and risks.
The Project Owner has responsibility for ensuring the hard decisions are made, and the overall approach is correct. The owner works with the project manager and product manager in a triumvirate of mutual interest. The Product Owner needs to budget more time than usual in engagement with senior stakeholders, including when decisions have to be escalated upwards. Focussed on the high-level politics, the project owner does not see the day-to-day detail of the project.
The Project Manager looks outwards from the project to other parts of the organisation and to suppliers. With action-on risk management, there is an increased demand for communications and engagement. The project manager also needs to lead small teams focussed on understanding the non-technical risks and unknowns.
The Product Manager is responsible for the product (outputs) of the project, and the technical choices that go towards that. Within high-risk projects, priorities can shift rapidly. There are times when a trade-off is needed between what has already been agreed for the product, and alternatives that are easier to handle with the risks.
In complex projects there may be more than one product manager, such as one focussing on technology and another on data or on media/content.
The Technical Project Manager (or scrum master) looks inwards, towards the day-to-day sequence of delivery. With each intelligence cycle, an increased effort goes into spikes for research and analysis and dissemination. That increases the workload.
The importance of soft skills for leadership
The project leadership team collectively needs a can-do attitude. They trust that by following the intelligence process they can produce a good outcome or, at worst, mitigate the pain. It shouldn’t be blind trust, because the practice is to be continually following risks and uncertainties.
Openness. Often there be someone on the leadership team who is deeply suspicious – countering that caution is a useful exercise. Within the broader team there will be more suspicions, and it’s key to encourage openness. There’s an important soft skill about encouraging people to speak out about worries.
Very tight messaging is needed with external stakeholders, and also within the team. The leadership team plays a key role in setting that, and changing the narrative as the situation evolves. That includes 180 degree reversals on key points, because it’s inevitable that will happen.
Be positive. There must be no words of complaint when the technical and delivery teams encounter setbacks. People are doing things for the first time, and working in an unfamiliar way. If they’re not encountering setbacks, they’re not pushing themselves to their limits.
As well as the can-do attitude, and speaking out, we need to encourage free thinking and divergent opinions. This helps with finding the unknowns, understanding their context and <most especially> with finding creative ways to solve them. In my own projects, I encourage humour, idiosyncratic behaviour and way-out ideas.
Mentoring. Within the leadership team, everyone will have strengths and weaknesses in the soft skills of leadership. We play to each other’s strengths and cover for each other’s weaknesses. A key practice is also to provide mentoring to each other, as well as your team members. Or get someone else to do the mentoring for you.
The leadership team needs to have a thorough understanding of the broader context of the project within the business – the soft skill of systems and business awareness. This helps them understand the impact of risks, look for creative options, and direct the messaging. It’s a road of discovering the business and meeting new people – exploring.
Be professional. Through good times and bad, the entire approach applies. Don’t pressure the team to do what they can’t, don’t hide major problems, and don’t show your own nervousness. And if the situation deteriorates, stay cool, because it’s now about systematically mitigating the damage and helping the team adjust.
The people who deliver intelligence about the high risks are in delivery roles. For many people, it’s only one part of their wider responsibilities.
In the intelligence cycle, researchers are responsible for establishing facts, and disproving false theories. They include experts within any of the domains that contribute to the threat. Such expertise includes people from outside the core project team, and sometimes from outside your company or organisation. As well as experts, it’s often necessary to use research assistants, who perform repetitive jobs under the supervision of an expert.
Analysts take the “facts” from research and use it understand a problem or situation, or to look for ways forward. It involves looking beyond the scope of the research, to the broader context. It’s a structured discipline, based on both structured and lateral thinking. Done well, it’s also neutral, looking towards alternatives and avoiding fixating on the first easy solution that satisfies a problem. As well people who have job titles of “analyst” there are many others who have analytic mindsets. Within the urgency of a high-risk project, any help is welcome.
Within agile projects, the Scrum Leader coordinates the tasks of the team, and helps protect them from unreasonable pressure – essential in high-risk projects where people are working close to their limits. For example, urgent small research and analysis tasks are treated as “spikes”. Spikes are funded from a budget for unexpected items, or by removing other tasks from the sprint.
The importance of soft skills for delivery
For the key people in the delivery teams the importance of soft skills is as strong as their hard skills. You already have most of these skills. The key is to use the project as an opportunity to push your soft skills to new levels.
Suspicion. You need to be vigilant for anomalies that could indicate risk.
Agile, to cope with shifting priorities as unknowns emerge and become high priority.
Disciplined when faced with too many tasks to handle. You need this to prioritise which tasks to focus on, and which to delay. This gets more difficult when everyone is tired.
Investigative, to explore unknowns or find facts that can help indicate ways forward, or contribute to decisions. These are research skills.
Analytic skills to objectively review research in a broader context, understand the context, and plot ways forward.
Explaining what you’ve discovered, or the ideas you have, or the things you’re doing. The better you explain, the easier it is for colleagues to support you, the leadership team to provide direction and support, and for the liaisons to work with the stakeholders outside the project.
Keeping on-message. When talking to people outside the project, you need to know the current “messages” that are being sent. You also need to know the things that are being held back because they’re unfounded suspicions or rapidly changing. Going off-message ends up in wasted effort to resolve it, so this is an important soft skill to develop.
Supportive to team colleagues, to help them when they encounter problems or need your mentoring. And in return, they help you in other ways.
Self-aware of your mental health, and people around you. Because it can be hard and relentless. We all weaken at times, and need our colleagues for support. Ultimately the soft skill of mental health awareness is the most important of all.
Liaison involves collaborating with other people in other parts of the organisation, and outside it. Liaison includes technical tasks, the supply of services to the project, delivery and customers, legal compliance, and more.
Technical liaison with other initiatives and activities covers overlapping details for technology, data/content, and changes in working practices. Liaison is typically very detailed, with the ability to escalate upwards when there are broader issues to be addressed at executive level. Liaison is provided by product managers, team leaders and specialists in the other work streams.
Stakeholder representatives help achieve good communications to the people who are impacted by the project, within and outside the organisation. The stakeholder representatives come from other parts of the organisation, and have good links upwards and to the networks of specialists and achievers. They select the elements of the messaging that are most relevant to their audience, and tailor it to that audience. When there’s volatility, they regularly ask for extra detail covering specific points for that audience. And they collect requests and feedback to the core team.
Governance groups or roles exist in finance, commercial, marketing, project management, technology and more. Governance usually need limited information, but it must be accurate and open. During the early stages of a high-risk project, there can be a lot of unanswered questions and unquantifiable risk. It’s the role of the governance to verify there are suitable controls to counter the threat, and that they accept that there will be significant problems. The impact of the problems will hit them. Do the benefits clearly outweigh the threat?
The importance of soft skills for liaison
The importance of soft skills is exceptionally high for liaison work. You don’t have to be perfect at all of them, but where you’re challenged look to other people for help.
Listening and learning, to understand what other people are doing. You need it when looking out to the stakeholders, and also when looking inwards to the project.
Empathy, to understand why people are worried and how they feel, because change and unknowns can be intimidating.
Writing and presenting, to adapt core messages from the project team to suit your specialist audience.
Mentoring, if you can. Intelligence-based projects is knowledge intensive. People will need things explained, often more than once.
Be systematic, because there’s often a lot of detail.
Professionalism, because as a liaison you’ll privy to confidences. If you encounter things that need to be escalated, pass the responsibility and the pain upwards. It’s the manager’s job to resolve that kind of problem.
Other reading on soft skills
Stories on this website that feature the good judgement that often needs to accompany soft skills:
- “Donat’s story.” Donat has a dream of joining a top intelligence agency but he is just an academic researcher. He must face a competitor with much more experience.
- “Too many presidents.” A young business analyst must confront her feared boss.
- “Wuhan and biological weapons capability – a story.” A professor must counter a top intelligence group.
- “A delicate liaison.” An intelligence liaison is confronted by a moral dilemma.
My favourite book on the importance of soft skills for leadership and managing risk: “Risk, a User’s Guide”, by General Stanley McChrystal (rtd.) and Anna Butrico, Penguin Business, 2021. https://www.mcchrystalgroup.com/library/risk-a-users-guide/
My favourite on leading intelligence analysts: “Lessons from the CIA’s Analytic Front Lines”, by Bruce E Pease. https://us.sagepub.com/en-us/nam/leading-intelligence-analysis/book258717
For a collection of titles on building soft skills in business, try “How to build soft skills: 10 must-read books” at https://enterprisersproject.com/article/2019/2/how-build-soft-skills-10-must-read-books