Skills for Project Managers

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When I was a master's student, I became interested in performance and personality traits. I was curious to know if there were certain personality traits that were predisposed to better on-the-job performance. Back then, I as a construction project manager and so I set about searching if "successful" project managers had certain attributes about them. As I think back about my research, it was a fun process of discovery and I believe what I found still holds today.

The thesis relevant for process improvers because you are a project manager for every process improvement project you choose to take on. If you've done any number of project facilitation, you'll find the rest of this blog post relevant to your work.

The Seven KSAs

My research thesis ended up following the classic, 5-chapter thesis which had the introduction, background, methodology, data, and analysis and conclusion chapters. I'll spare you all the reading and cut to the chase: In the literature review, I found that project managers are supposed to have seven distinct skills and attributes. These are generally known as knowledge, skills, and abilities (KSAs).

1. Leadership ability

Good leaders have the skill to influence a group so that they collectively agree to accomplish a common goal. A lot to unpack here because how do you influence? How do you establish that common goal? Every improvement project has the elements of a team, a goal, and at the head of it a leader to take that team to the goal.

2. Communication

If you have two or more people and an idea, thought, concept, feeling, or opinion that you need to convey, communication needs to happen. I found plenty of studies that listed communication ability at the top or near the top of traits to have for project managers.

3. Decision making

Decision making is your ability to take action based on how you combine information and develop a set of alternatives. In process improvement, getting to the end goal for your project team is an open-ended endeavor. There is never a clear-cut path to success and choices need to be made on what tasks to take on or which path to explore.

4. Organizational ability

In the original thesis, I actually called this one administrative skill and said that this is actually two parts: planning and organizing. Over the years, I've come to learn that planning is part of being organized, and so this skill is simply organizing ability. If you are organized, you plan ahead and work in a systematic, efficient way.

5. Coping ability

Because the work that we do is open-ended (see decision making skill above), being able to adapt and respond to change is important. Maybe the team makes a mistake and decides to make a different choice. Or maybe new information sheds more light on an issue and a change needs to be made. Dealing will with this change and adapting to the new circumstance is coping ability.

6. Analytical thinking

This type of thinking is the ability to analyze and interpret information for problem solving. Analytical thinking is more than simply being "smart." It's being smart for the purpose of solving a problem related to your project or task at hand.

7. Technical competence

The final KSA is technical competence. This is also being smart, but smart related to your work. This is where you know the "how" of your trade. You know all the tools, techniques, and procedures for being the best Lean or Six Sigma process improver out there.

What did I find?

One of the fun parts about the thesis was the data collection and the fancy statistics I learned to analyze the data. Maybe that will be for a later blog post, but I know I want to save you from the math in this blog post.

I ended up finding that the most important trait of project managers was their organizational ability (surprise!). Followed closely behind this was their leadership ability, decision making ability, and technical competence. I couldn't draw any conclusions on the other three traits.

What does it mean?

So here's what I think the findings mean. If you wanted to improve at work and could only choose one skill to develop, work on your organizational ability. In addition to the research, and after years of working, I've come to the conclusion that organizational ability is a "facilitator trait." That is, if you're well organized, that facilitates better performance in the other KSAs.

I think part of it is from the freed up thinking space to make better decisions (decision making), or to think more clearly about the problem in front of you (analytical thinking), or thinking needed to perform your job (technical competence). And better thinking leads to better communication, better coping, and better leadership.


If you're interested in improving your organizational ability, check out the resources below (and think about signing up for my newsletter).

  • I'll be writing lots of blog posts in the future on this website under the title of productivity. Here's a link to all my productivity posts so far.
  • If you want to read my original thesis from the Air Force Institute of Technology, you can get to that work through this link.
  • Finally, check out my books review page for ideas and suggestions on productivity books to check out.

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