Measurable Soft Skills: Don’t get all mushy over soft skills!

Measurable Soft Skills: Don’t get all mushy over soft skills!

I wrote about this topic before and it is quite fashionable these days for business leaders, industry pundits, executive coaches, management consultants and generally anyone in the business cognoscenti to wax lyrically about the need for more soft skills.

How can you blame them?  Because it is actually a very important skill and so much so that even the US Department of Labor has a whole webpage devoted to it and outlining details to get better at it.  A plethora of articles from business rags to academic research has been exhaustively written on this topic.  The term “Emotional Intelligence” (EQ) was popularized by Daniel Goleman and is now an established term to discuss the psychology underlying how soft skills materialize.

In my view, typically at the start of one’s career is when you are mostly measured against hard type skills.  For example, a software developer would be measured on how quickly they could turn around code, with low errors and high quality.  At some point these individuals may exhibit the ability to coordinate and lead the development team around them to turn around code quicker, with low errors and high quality.  This is usually the point where they make the transition from software developer and technical lead to eventually becoming a project manager.  Even this has its stages as the more harder skills such as the ability to gather scope, create an accurate schedule and stay within budget by following the plan and paying attention to details are the focus early in the project manager’s career.  But as they progress on and become more experienced, they start to get judged, rather than measured on their soft skills such as their ability to communicate, listen, negotiate, resolve conflicts, and influence and build teams.

The reason I say that project managers at this point are judged rather than measured for soft skills is the perception amongst many people that these skills are very hard, if not impossible to quantify.  We have this intuitive sense that this skill is usually acquired over time and we “know it when we see it”.  This is why I think primary, secondary and college education focuses mostly on the hard stuff because it becomes very subjective to grade someone on their ability to show empathy.  Finally, we are so varied in our backgrounds and psychological predispositions as well as working in a complex world that it’s hard to come up with a “one size fits all” prescription for how soft skills can be done in every situation, unlike “1 + 1 = 2” no matter where you’re at.

These points have merit, but in my view, if we confine ourselves to the business environment (that’s not to say it can’t be done on a personal level) then from a business perspective, the two main goals are of a business is almost always to increase profit and reduce cost.  The ultimate goal is to do both simultaneously always.  With that being said, and using this as the background objective, let’s outline a scenario where we could create a measurable metric for soft skill improvement:

The day was bright as winter just gave way to a lovely spring day and John just got promoted to project manager.  He made his way into this profession like many of us through sheer “accident”, in that he never intended to be a project manager but a software developer.  No one doubted his technical acumen and though he lacked finesse and social decorum, he was a very driven and pushed his team to meet their deadlines.  It was after a succession of these that he got assigned as a project manager on a very important, but complex and high profile software project.

It was after this “promotion” when it became apparent that his lack of social decorum and interpersonal communication skills was causing doubts and frustration amongst the executive steering committee members questioning whether John was the right person.  He was sometimes rather pejoratively referred to as “Schizoid John”, because he had a tendency to act like Chicken Little during the meetings when talking about risks and issues in that it always seemed the world was ending.  In addition, when he was stressed he would always regress back to what he knew best, which was the technical details.  This was when acronyms and techno-babble would fly left and right and to add insult to injury, when he saw confusion and frustration on the faces of the executives whom he was talking to, he would talk even faster with an every rising vernacular of techno-babble that rose to an astonishing and catastrophic crescendo.  It was a painful process of back and forth questions and answers and often times repeated meetings, before a decision could be made by the executive team on how to act on a risk or issue.

Fortunately for John, the project had to be delayed and because he was proven such a valuable technical resource, the management team decided to have him take some communication and soft-skills training.  It was here that he acquired an epiphany, in that it was less about his deep technical knowledge and the merits of the technical solution he thought he had to get across to the executive team, but rather packaging the risk or issue with just enough detail and wrapping it around a narrative that both engaged and informed the executive teams and concluded with options that were easily digestible so as to make a decision on.

It was at this critical juncture when the project resumed and the inevitable risk followed suit.  But this time Schizoid-John was ready to shed his old ways and infamous label, for a major risk came up where the hardware that was to support the software system was found to be severely under allocated with disk space.  It was here that John wrote up a succinct one page risk assessment that outlined the risk with just enough technical detail and housed in business language that resonated with the executive team and concluded nicely with three scenarios that included the cost as well as the risk impact if they took no decision, a “middle of the road” solution, or the best and most costly solution.  John emailed this ahead of time before the meeting, and then articulated the risk to confirm what was documented and walked the executives through the scenarios.  The executives were so clear on what was needed, that they were able to make a decision in less than five minutes!

John was no longer called Schizoid John, but just John the lead project manager whom everyone from the executives to the project teams all respected and enjoyed working with.

While this is a fictionalized tale, I would have to say that I’ve worked with many “Schizoid John” types throughout my career so would not be out of line to say it represents a common project manager archetype.  But for me, where the rubber hits the road is where in the story, John is able to get the executives to make a decision in less than five minutes.  It is not in the realm of fiction where such things occur, as I’ve and people I have trained have been able to accomplish such efficiencies by being more effective and raising their EQ.  I’ll go into detail about this in a later post, but the main idea behind this is that we have a measurable metric to assess how much better a person is able to effectively communicate and gain an efficient transaction that is measurable such that it becomes a measurable soft-skill.

In my view, it would be hard to argue against this.

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