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Project Leadership – How the Three Skills Approach Applies to Project Management

What does it take to effectively lead a project team? Pretty much the same things it takes to lead any other team in business. 

Project managers are responsible for overseeing the completion of assigned projects.  At times, we are called on to select the right tools and techniques for a particular job.  We need to manage, lead, and motivate our project team members.  We need to keep an overall view of the big picture to know how all the different elements of our projects work together.  Effective project management requires various different sets of skills. 

The Three Skills Approach

Robert Katz presented a model of three skills necessary for effective management in his 1974 article titled, “Skills of an Effective Administrator.”  There are three categories of skills necessary for effective leadership:

  • Technical Skills
  • Human Skills
  • Conceptual Skills

Technical skills address the hands-on, direct skills necessary for accomplishing certain types of tasks.  This means having knowledge about and being proficient in a specific type of work or activity.  Technical skills include specialized competencies, analytic abilities, and the use of appropriate tools and techniques.  These kinds of skills involve hands-on ability with processes, products, and equipment. 

Human skills refer to the people skills necessary to lead and manage.  This means having knowledge about and being able to work together with others.  Good human skills mean being aware of one’s own perspective and the perspectives of others at the same time.  A skilled manager can assist group members in working cooperatively to achieve common goals. 

Conceptual skill is the ability see, and understand, the big picture.  It is knowing how all of the various parts of an operation or organization work together and affect each other.  A leader with conceptual skills works easily with hypothetical notions and abstraction.  This kind of capability is necessary in creating and articulating a vision and strategic plan for an organization. 

Applying the Model to Project Management

For project managers, the skill categories and their corresponding descriptions probably bring to mind the various skills necessary for managing projects of all types.  The skills of an effective project manager can also be divided into these three categories.

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Technical Skills

In project management, technical skills can be further divided into two categories; technical skills involved for the type of project being managed and the technical skills of project management itself. 

Technical skills involved for the type of project being managed address the “How To” details of the discipline area a project is involved with.  For example, if the project at hand is to develop software applications, then the project manager should have a certain level of understanding for software development.  If it involves implementing new medical processes and procedures, the PM should have some medical knowledge.  Even when working with subject matter experts as a part of a project team, a project manager needs to have a base level of knowledge in order to effectively manage the project, even from a purely administrative standpoint. 

Technical skills of project management address the ability to utilize project management tools and techniques.  These are the hands-on skills of project management and involve everything from scheduling, to planning, to execution, monitoring and controlling, resource analysis, and all of the other skills we think of as the skills of project management. 

Human Skills

Any project involving more than one person has a need for human skills in its management.  In dealing with project workers and team members, this includes the knowledge area of Project Human Resource Management.  In interactions with people outside of the project organization, skills in the area of Project Stakeholder Management come into play. 

However it is broken down, human skills are the various abilities in dealing with the people involved in projects.  Sometimes this involves negotiating.  In other cases, it means acting as a motivator.  The vast majority of projects involve more than one person in some way, so human skills are a central part of managing most projects. 

Conceptual Skills

Projects involve a lot of moving parts.  Different areas, both inside and outside of a project organization, need to be connected and coordinated in order for projects to run smoothly and achieve success.  Schedules need to be coordinated with available resources, budgets need to be maintained, equipment and resources need to be procured.  The list of items that come together goes on and on.  In technical terms, this all refers to the knowledge area of Project Integration Management. 

A skilled project manager needs to understand the different parts of the project.  They need to understand how to coordinate, communicate, and integrate all of the interconnected elements. 

The Idea in Practice

Various versions of the Three Skills Approach model offer differing opinions on how the skills mix applies.  Earlier versions prescribe the idea that different levels of leadership require different levels of each skill category.  More contemporary models suggest that higher levels of capability in all three skill areas are necessary for higher levels of administration and management. 

In a project management context, identifying the needs of each skill area can be a good starting point in deciding how to match projects with capable project managers.  Project owners can examine the needs of a project according to the required skill sets and try to select a PM with the necessary skills.  For example, in highly technically oriented projects such as construction, engineering, and biomedical projects, project managers with specialized skills in these areas need to be considered for engagement.  For wide ranging projects that involve sweeping changes for large organizations, higher levels of administrative and conceptual skills are necessary and so project managers with these skills should, therefore, be selected. 

Project managers should also reflect on and be aware of their own level of skills in these areas.  This will help them to select assignments for which they can be most effective, and to identify areas for future development and improvement.  As we develop further in all three skill areas, the better we will be at managing projects of all types. 

Skills acquisition and development is an ongoing part of professional development.  Knowing which skills to develop first can be a good way to make the most efficient and effective use of our training time. 

Mark Romanelli

Mark Romanelli is a full-time lecturer in the Sports, Culture, and Events Management program at the University of Applied Science Kufstein Tirol (FH Kufstien Tirol) in Kufstein, Austria. His curriculum includes courses in Project Management and Strategic Project Development. He is a member of the Project Management Institute and a Certified Associate in Project Management.