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Hard and Soft Project Management – The Three BIG Questions: Answered!

Hard and Soft Project Management - The Three BIG Questions: Answered!

You have probably heard of ‘Hard and Soft Project Management’. In fact, you may have come across an artificially concocted debate about the merits of hard versus soft Project Management. In this article, I want to assess what the terms hard and soft mean, why they are not in opposition to each other, and how to develop both hard and soft Project Management skills.

Hard and Soft Project Management - The Three BIG Questions: Answered!

The Three BIG Questions about Hard and Soft Project Management

To do this I am going to answer the three big questions about Hard and Soft Project Management:

  1. What do we Mean by Hard and Soft Project Management Skills?
  2. How do Hard and Soft Skills fit into Project Management?
  3. How Can We Develop Hard and Soft Skills Project Management through Our Careers?

In addition, you will find an extra section:

What do we mean by Hard and Soft Project Management Skills?

At its simplest, when you hear the terms hard and soft project management, they are usually referring to:

Hard Project Management

The technical skills of analysis, planning, tracking, and problem-solving. These skills are highly numerical, logical, and data-oriented. The kinds of personality traits that support implementing them well are discipline, rationality, and cool rigor. These include the fundamentals of Project Management, like:

  • Tasks
  • Schedule
  • Budget
  • Resources
  • Quality
  • Risk

Soft Project Management

The people-oriented skills of empathy, collaboration, influence, and leadership. These skills tend to have a much wider business and social application. They are marked by high levels of ’emotional intelligence’ which is usually taken to be a combination of:

  • Self awareness
  • Self-control
  • Empathy for others’ feelings
  • Social skills

So the sort of personality we see here is gregarious or caring, but certainly good with people and enjoys being and working with them.

Our Understanding of Hard and Soft Project Management Skills is Linked to People

I’d like to suggest that we can define hard and soft project management skills in terms of our attitude to people. And I also think there is a third useful category. Here are my working definitions:

Hard Project Management is…
getting the job done as if people weren’t really involved.

Hard/Soft Project Management is…
getting the job knowing that people are important.

Soft Project Management is…
getting the job done knowing that people are really the key.

Each of these leads us to separate kill sets. And we need to be able to exercise all of them. However, some personalities lead us to lean more heavily on one part of the wider set of capabilities than others.

Hard and Soft Skills and Personality

There are many different models of personality. They set out different types, like:

  • hard-driving getting-things-done people
  • coldly analytical rational-thinking people
  • conscientious rule-loving people
  • calmly reasuring solidly-steady people
  • socially alert caring-sharing people
  • openly gregarious influential-networker people

It is easy to see our hard and soft project management skills in the top two and the bottom two of these, respectively. And maybe the two archetypes in the middle will favor hard/soft project management skills.

But none of those models (when explained properly) seek to place you or me firmly into one box. Many people do have a style that makes us more comfortable with one or two types of roles or patterns of behavior. That’s true.

But we can all be flexible, and many of us happily adopt more than one personality style and the traits that go with it. Sometimes you’ll bring out different styles in different situations. You can also move from one style to another.  Maybe your ‘style’ is a combination.

How do Hard and Soft Skills fit into Project Management?

What seems to me to be true is this:

Good Project Management is Hard and Soft Project Management

This is to say, that if you want to be a good project manager, you need to be able to deploy hard and soft project management skills. You need to be able to choose which ones to focus on at any time. And you also need to be able to switch quickly, or even combine hard and soft project management approaches, as the situation merits.

To be a good #project manager, you need to be able to deploy hard and soft project management skills via @onlinepmcourses

Why Projects Fail

Take a look, for example, at why projects fail. In a pair of articles, I introduced Ten Points of Project Failure.

  1. Project Definition
  2. Governance
  3. Planning
  4. Politics
  5. Stakeholder Engagement
  6. Resources
  7. Project Management
  8. Testing and Quality
  9. Implementation
  10. External Factors

Hard Project Management Skills
Some of these are clearly related to hard project management skills: #3, #6, #8, and #9.

Soft Project Management Skills
Politics (#4) and Stakeholder Engagement (#5) seem strongly linked to soft project management skills.

Hard/Soft Project Management Skills
You can easily see the influence of both hard and soft project management in the remainder: #1, #2, #7, and #10
But even the clearer cases have both hard and soft project management skills wrapped into them.

Placing Project Management Skills into the Hard, Hard/Soft, and Soft Categories

In allocating specific Hard and Soft Project Management skills, I want to start with the specific skill sets that we may think of as knowledge areas or domains of knowledge.


Please note…

Please note that, while PMI’s editions 1 to 5 of its Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK Guide) list Knowledge Areas, but I am interpreting the term more widely, to include other areas of knowledge. But I shall use an asterisk (*) to indicate those which are listed as Knowledge Areas in the PMBOK Guide 6th Edition.
However, I will also use the specific Project Performance Domains of the PMI’s PMBOK Guide 7th Edition.

Please note that, while PMI’s editions 1 to 5 of its Guide to

Hard Project Management Skills

I interpret the hard project management skills as covering these broad knowledge areas:

  • Scope*
  • Schedle*
  • Cost* (or Budget) and Financial Acumen
  • Quality*
  • Resources*
  • Risk*
  • Procurement*
  • Contract Management
  • Progress Monitoring and Measurement

Hard/Soft Project Management Skills

  • Integration*
  • Governance
  • Knowledge Management
  • Benefits/Value
  • Tailoring
  • Problem Solving
  • Decision Making
  • Business Acumen and Strategy
  • Entrepreneurship

Soft Project Management Skills

  • Communication*
  • Stakeholder Engagement*
  • Leadership
  • Management skills
  • Personal Professional Effectiveness
  • Interpersonal Skills
  • Political Acumen
  • Change Management
  • Negotiation
  • Conflict Management
  • Continuous Learning
  • Teaching, Training, Facilitation, Mentoring, and Coaching

Project Performance Domains from PMBOK 7

When we come to look at the eight Project Performance Domains of the 7th Edition of the PMBOK Guide, we start to see a striking pattern. Maybe this is something the authors had in mind, although the allocations are my own:

  • Soft Project Management Skills
    Domains 1 and 2
    • Stakeholder
    • Team
  • Hard/Soft Project Management Skills
    Domain 3
    • Developmemt Approach and Life Cycle
  • Hard Project Management Skills
    Domains 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8
    • Planning
    • Project Work
    • Delivery
    • Measurement
    • Uncertainty

Project Management Principles from PMBOK 7

We can also allocate the 12 Project Management Principles from the 7th edition of the PMBOK Guide to Hard and Soft Project Management. However, being principles, the mapping is always going to be more approximate. Here, then, is my interpretation.

  • Soft Project Management Skills
    Principles 2, 3, 6, and 12
    • Collaborative team environment
    • Engage with stakeholders
    • Leadaership behaviors
    • Enable change
  • Hard/Soft Project Management Skills
    Principles 1, 4, 5, 7, 9, and 11
    • Stewardship
    • Focus on value
    • System interactions
    • Tailor based on context
    • Navigate complexity
    • Adaptability and resiliency
  • Hard Project Management Skills
    Principles 8 and 10
    • Quality
    • Risk responses

I think it is interesting that:

  • PMBOK 7’s Domains slew heavily towards Hard (5/8) Project Management Skills
  • PMBOK 7’s Principles slew heavily towards Hard/Soft (6/12) and Soft (4/12) Project Management Skills

You can also see a good balance of hard and soft Project Management skills in both our Seven Vital Project Management Priorities and our Ten Critical Things to Learn about Project Management.

A Spectrum of Project Management Skills

However, it would be a gross oversimplification to suggest that hard and soft project management skills truly represent different things. Rather, I prefer to think of them as two ends of a spectrum.

Like red and blue, they are easy to distinguish. But there is a load of stuff in between that is may start as hard, but have a bit of soft, or seem soft, but with a little hard edge. And there are some project management skills that are certainly both logical and emotional in nature. Orange may be mostly red. Green might be mostly blue. And yellow is somewhere in between.

The Hard and Soft Project Management Skills Spectrum

Let’s take a list of Project Management skills and place them on a spectrum. This is not an attempt at an exhaustive list. Nor is the placing on the spectrum anything more than my subjective assessment. The purpose is purely to illustrate my point.

Hard and Soft Project Management Skills Spectrum
Hard and Soft Project Management Skills Spectrum

How Can We Develop Hard and Soft Skills Project Management through Our Careers?

The last question to address is how to develop both hard and soft skills.

  1. First, we’ll look at the order in which to prioritize your learning, the ‘route to mastery’
  2. Then, we’ll look at two approaches to learning: ‘integrated’ and ‘individual’

The Route to Mastery

Hard Skills

Typically, Project Managers will start with a focus on hard skills. And, broadly, I’d expect you to be able to master these skills first, as part of your transition from a beginner project manager to an experienced practitioner. It may take from 3 to 10 years to achieve this.

This is the transition that may be marked by, for example, completion of:

  • PMI’s PMP (Project Management Practitioner) certification
  • IPMA’s Cerified Senior Project Manager (Level B) certification
  • APM’s Project Professional (PPQ) qualification

Hard/Soft Skills

The next focus will be on the hard/soft skills and mastering these will take you from practitioner level to master level. So, expect this to take you from 6 to 12 years of project delivery experience. Now, of course, you will be learning these hard/soft project management skills from early in your career. But many of these are subtle. They will not only take longer to learn, but you will need experience of working at a higher, more senior level to really get the experience you need.

This level is broadly consistent with:

  • PMA’s Certified Projects Director (Level a) certification
  • APM’s Fellow of the Association for Project Management (FAPM) membership
  • Soft Skills

    Soft skills take a lifetime’s study and, even then, you are unlikely to master more than a few of them! You will study these as your career develops, through all stages. But mastery of these is a long-term goal.

    And this begs the question:

    Which soft skills should you focus on, at each stage of your career?

    Here’s my assessment:

    • Beginner (first 3-5 years)
      Focus on:
      • Self Management
      • Personal Impact
      • Communication skills
    • Practitioner (next 3 to 7 years)
      Focus on:
      • Leadership
      • Team-building
      • Motivating Others
      • Managing Upwards
    • Master (the rest of your career)
      Focus on:
      • Business Acumen
      • Political Acumen

    And, throughout your career, there is one subject to constantly study and learn from: Psychology.

    Take a look at our article: Top 12 Psychologists a Project Manager Should Know About

    Two Approaches

    There are two approaches to developing your hard and soft project management skills:

    1. The Integration Approach
    2. The Individual Approach

    Let’s take a look at each in turn.

    The Integration Approach to Developing Hard and Soft Project Management Skills

    I recommend this approach for new and intermediately experienced project managers. Here, you develop the hard and soft project management skill areas together. My core project management courses are all designed to emphasize how the whole spectrum fits together, and how you can’t separate the two ends.

    However, as you move from our more basic to more comprehensive core courses, you will find a greater proportion of soft skills content.

    1. The entry-level core video program is the Project Manager’s Fast Start Program. It is clearly focused on the basic hard skills, with all the core soft skills integrated.
    2. In the mid-tier Project Manager’s Skills Mastery Program, you will find more material on stakeholder engagement, and governance. There is also some new material about team leadership.
    3. In the most comprehensive core course, The Project Manager’s Immersion Program, there is a lot of material on the leadership, stakeholder engagement, and psychological dimensions of project management. Indeed, I suspect there is a far greater proportion of soft management skills here, than you will find in a vast majority of commercial (and academic) project management courses.

    The Individual Approach to Developing Hard and Soft Project Management Skills

    As you improve your Project Management skills and experience, you will want to focus on your development more tightly. Now, you will want to select the topics where you can get the most leverage for your learning. This will depend on your past experiences and what you are are already good at. It will also depend on the nature of the projects you are doing, and what you think are the priorities for improving your successful delivery.

    This is why we have created our:

    How You can Learn More about Hard and Soft Project Management Skills

    We have nearly 600 articles on this website. These cover pretty much everything under the hard and hard/soft skills lists and a broad selection of soft skills too. There is a new long-form article, every Monday.

    We also have a thriving Project Management YouTube channel, which publishes two Project Management videos every week.

    And, for a deeper focus n soft skills, that has a sister YouTube channel, Management Courses, which also publishes two videos a week, on Tuesdays and Thursdays. The videos collate into playlists that are designed to form coherent courses about management skills. You can also access them at the Management Courses website.

    There is a general management reading list on the Management Courses website and specific reading lists on each course page.

    Finally, we have a Project Management reading list on this website.

    Building Your Project Career

    If you are committed to building a Project career, you will need to learn both hard and soft Project Management skills.

    Plan your own professional self-development around the idea of balance. I would not necessarily counsel that you aim for an even balance of time spent on each. This to me seems like an ‘input measure’. What Project Managers should be focusing on is outcomes. The outcome measure is your balance of hard and soft Project Management skills, so balance your learning and practice efforts to achieve the output you want.

    I think this is going to be an essential thing for you to demonstrate, if you want to get a Project Management job role. And, in particular, you should be ready to discuss your perspective on this balance at a Project Management job interview too.

    What do You Think?

    Please do use the comments below to let us know what you think are the most important hard and soft Project Management skills.

    About the Author Mike Clayton

    Dr Mike Clayton is one of the most successful and in-demand project management trainers in the UK. He is author of 14 best-selling books, including four about project management. He is also a prolific blogger and contributor to and Project, the journal of the Association for Project Management. Between 1990 and 2002, Mike was a successful project manager, leading large project teams and delivering complex projects. In 2016, Mike launched OnlinePMCourses.

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