What are project management skills?
Every job requires you to possess a specific set of skills in order to perform it.
Typically, the more complex the position, the more numerous the skill requirements for it are. But few positions can match the sheer number of skills required to be a project manager.
Throughout the lifecycle of a project, the project manager’s immediate duties change several times over, so that, at times, it can feel like regularly switching jobs.
To perform this job effectively, a project manager must have the following 14 hard and soft project management skills:
- Hard skills:
- Project planning skills
- Budget management skills
- Task management skills
- Risk management skills
- Skills needed to use a project management software
- Skills needed to use a project management methodology
- Technical writing skills
- Technical skills
- Soft skills:
- Leadership skills
- Communication skills
- Time management skills
- Problem-solving skills
- Negotiation skills
- Adaptability skills
In this guide, we’ll go through these project management skills one by one, so that you can understand exactly what they entail. We’ll also provide tips on improving your project management skills at the end.
Hard skills you need for project management
Collectively known as hard skills are those skills that are teachable, quantifiable, or both. In other words, all hard skills can be learned through education or training.
If there exists a degree for something, then that something is also a hard skill.
For example, a language degree quantifies your knowledge of a certain language.
Proficient use of Microsoft Excel is also a hard skill, as is UX design, graphics design, editing, typing speed, statistical analysis, network security, SEO marketing, bus driving, and so on.
Each job comes with its own hard skill requirements, but few positions are as demanding in this regard as those for project managers.
For a project manager’s CV to look impressive, it would ideally be decorated with all of the following hard skills:
- Project planning
- Risk management
- Technical skills
- Task management
- Budget management
- Project management methodologies
- Project management software
- Documentation skills
Now let’s take a look at what each of these hard skills entail in more detail.
Project planning skills 📝
Creating a project plan may well be considered the most important hard skill for project managers to master. Not that any of the other skills are unimportant, but most of them require a solid plan to work off of.
Project planning skills enable you to build the foundation upon which the budget, timeline, and scope of the project will rest in perfect harmony.
Your budget management skills could be world-class, but this won’t help if you failed to deduce the proper size of the budget during the planning phase.
Likewise, your task management skills could be unparalleled, but if you failed to correctly calculate the required workforce for the given timeline, you simply won’t be able to get the team to do everything that’s needed.
We’ll talk more on the specifics of budget management and task management in the following segments — but project planning as a whole had to be mentioned since it is more than the sum of its parts.
Even in weak matrix organizations — i.e. organizations where the project manager holds the least sway over the project — project managers are still the ones responsible for documenting a detailed project plan.
Budget management skills ⚖️
At a glance, budget management may appear simple enough — but to feel this way is to not look past the project planning stage.
When it comes to budget management, project managers need to meticulously account for all the costs the project in question demands.
Among other things, this includes the costs of:
Complex, perhaps — but nothing that good old arithmetics can’t handle.
However, budget management isn’t contained to project planning — it’s a daily concern throughout any project’s entire life cycle.
For example, it’s the project manager’s job to negotiate prices with vendors and subcontractors.
In addition to this, they have to keep the budget in mind while prioritizing in the face of pressing issues.
There is a lot of overlap between budget management and risk management. After all, how you handle budget in face of impending risks has a direct bearing on the overall quality of project deliverables.
It’s not uncommon for projects to last for several years, during which time they may encounter:
- Part shortages,
- Market crashes, or
- Global pandemics.
Each and every one of these risks demands great efforts with regard to project management if the project is to be successful.
Task management skills ✔️
Task management refers to the way in which the activities covered by the project scope are carried out and monitored.
In other words, task management skills show how good the project manager is at seeing the project plan through and moving things along.
Paramount to task management is proper sequencing — i.e. how to organize the task to allow for the most optimal and most efficient workflow.
Some tasks can be done independently of others.
Some need to be done simultaneously
And some require a certain framework to be built upon.
Improper sequencing can quickly lead to bottlenecks — especially when work on certain tasks can’t commence without prior completion of previous tasks.
Project management software tools help immensely with the visualization and efficiency of sequencing — but they are no more than tools that competent project managers employ to facilitate their workflow.
Likewise, it’s the project manager’s job to monitor the project’s progress.
This, too, is made simpler thanks to project management software — but the software can’t help you if you don’t know what to look for in the first place.
A project manager is expected to have a firm understanding of the project’s progress at all times.
Comparing the completion of tasks with preset milestones set out during project planning is merely one way of accomplishing this task.
Risk management skills 🚩
Anything that can negatively impact a project is categorized as a risk. Project risk management categorizes even things that can positively impact the project as risks — but we won’t focus on that for now.
And when we say anything, we really do mean it. Some examples include:
- Part shortage
- Price inflation
- Employee illness
- Scope creep
- Power outages
- Aggressive competition
It is the project manager’s job to identify these potential risks and evaluate the potential severity of their negative impact and the likelihood of their occurrence.
Once this is done, they can work on creating risk mitigation plans, where they search for a solution for everything that could go wrong.
To illustrate this through a simple example, David Pym likened risk management to getting shot — you can avoid the bullet, deflect it, or take the bullet and repair the damage, hoping that it won’t be fatal.
Extreme as it may be, this gunfire analogy is effective.
Since at no point do you have control over the risk, risk management is all about how you prepare for and how you react to these unwanted occurrences.
A clearly defined plan that includes proper risk management is one of the critical success factors for project managers.
If successfully implemented, risk management can enable the team to assume a proactive approach to realizing the project’s goals.
Conversely, a lack of risk management dooms the team to a reactive approach, where each issue has to be dealt with as it occurs with no prior strategy.
Skills needed to use a project management software 💻
Long gone are the days of managing all the project documentation, budgeting, sequencing, and everything else you need using heavy case files and towering stacks of paper.
Despite the frightening statistic that 44% of project managers still refuse to use project management software of any kind, the fact remains that these tools greatly benefit the success rates of projects.
Stats don’t lie and, in this case, stats tell us that project management tools improve:
- Timeline estimations by 60%
- Resource use effectiveness by 55%
- Team communication by 49%
- Budget estimation by 48%
Slowly but surely, these tools are becoming as essential a tool for project managers as Excel is for accountants.
To make a simple comparison, managing a project with and without such specialized software is similar to traveling long distances on foot and by car.
It’s not that you can’t travel long distances on foot — it’s just that it’s incomparably less efficient.
If this extensive list of hard skill requirements for project managers makes one thing clear, it’s that project managers have a lot on their plate. Project management software like Plaky helps make some of these tasks more manageable.
Perhaps most importantly, project management software allows you to centralize team and client communication, resulting in the above-stated communication statistic.
Skills needed to use a project management methodology 👷♀️
As complex as the road to becoming a project manager may be, it at least has the benefit of being well-trodden.
The engineering and construction worlds have the most experience with formal project management — but it has been creeping into other professions for decades now.
And, while innovation is always welcome, the great thing about this is that you don’t have to reinvent the wheel in order to master project management.
There’s a lot of history to study up on and loads of proven examples you can draw from.
Most notably, there exists a large number of proven project management methodologies, each deserving of its own guide.
These include, but are not limited to:
Different methodologies lend themselves to different projects.
It’s up to the project manager to decide which methodology to rely on.
This isn’t to say that project managers are expected to be masters of every methodology. However, working knowledge or at least a basic understanding of each one is desired, as this allows them to approach each project in a manner best suited to it.
For example, the Agile Manifesto clearly states that the purpose of this methodology is to streamline and improve software development — so software development is where it finds most use.
But it doesn’t end there.
Kanban and Scrum are both frameworks based on Agile — but while the former is better at managing work volume, the latter is the clear winner if time is crucial during the everyday goings-on of project development.
For these reasons, project managers need to be aware of the pros and cons of each methodology and make their choices accordingly.
Technical writing skills 🖋️
Technical writing — or documentation — is, of course, a crucial skill required to create a project plan.
But the need for it extends beyond just project planning.
Regardless of whether you’re using dedicated project management software or not, the fact remains that a project manager is required to keep detailed and up-to-date documentation on everything pertaining to the project.
This includes plans, progress updates, reports, and so on.
Let’s look at the concept of documentation through the prism of an actual project management methodology.
The Waterfall methodology doubles down on documentation. The idea is to document everything down to the smallest details so that even a change in team members won’t slow down the pace of the project. New recruits can study up on the documentation and pick up right where the old team member left off.
Regardless of whether you employ the Waterfall methodology or not, though, your technical writing skills need to be outstanding if you are to flourish as a project manager.
Technical skills 👩💻
While arguably the least important hard skill listed here, working knowledge of the subject matter pertaining to the project can be invaluable.
By having a working knowledge of software development, a project manager in charge of developing a piece of software can:
- Make more accurate project estimates,
- Give more detailed instructions to project team members, and
- Comprehend the progress of the project more intuitively.
If nothing else, this would help them better understand the potential software-specific risks the project might encounter.
Conversely, this same manager would not be able to navigate a skyscraper construction project as efficiently. That’s where a project manager with intimate knowledge of construction techniques and challenges would be more suitable.
This is why many project managers stick to one development field.
To reiterate, this hard skill isn’t always a requirement. The rest of the hard and soft skills listed here can make up for it.
But if you’ve already got the relevant technical know-how — flaunt it!
It can and will give you the edge over other project managers applying for the same project.
Soft skills you need for project management
The definition of soft skills can be vague and nebulous, so let’s turn to the experts.
The South Dakota Department of Education defines soft skills as “character skills and personality traits that reflect how you work in general”.
This includes everyone’s favorite evergreen hits that can be found on most, if not all, CVs, like team player and open to criticism.
It’s not uncommon for soft skills to be treated as nice-to-haves for some jobs.
But, when it comes to project managers, the following soft skills are, at the very least, just as important as the hard skills listed above:
- Leadership skills
- Communication skills
- Time management skills
- Problem-solving skills
- Negotiation skills
Leadership skills 👑
While project manager is the conventional title, you wouldn’t fail to convey the breadth of the responsibilities assigned to this position if you referred to it as project leader.
Without proper leadership skills and the right attitude, project managers won’t get far, no matter how proficient they are at all the required hard skills.
Project managers bear sole accountability for their projects. This means the pressure is on them to deliver.
And, since project success depends on the collective effort of multiple people, it’s up to project managers to expertly steer them towards project completion.
In a way, the project manager is like the captain of a ship.
They need to be in charge of their crew, as no matter how good their knowledge of traversing the open seas may be, they simply cannot accomplish such a feat on their own.
Communication is key in project management — the bigger the project, the bigger the need for maintaining a complex network of communication.
And, project managers are the ones who are expected to communicate with stakeholders — this includes both clients and the team working on the project, as well as any third party.
Nowadays, the lives of project managers are made infinitely easier thanks to both project management software and dedicated team collaboration tools like Pumble, which can facilitate both synchronous and asynchronous team communication.
But, a software can only enhance what’s already there.
Therefore, project managers must be effective communicators.
Time management skills ⏲️
When you think about it, time management is already necessitated by hard skills such as project planning and task management.
But this doesn’t paint the whole picture.
We might call this time management on a macro level, meaning long-term and team-wide.
But, project managers also have to be masters of time management on a micro level — i.e. throughout the day.
In other words, project managers must be as organized when it comes to their day-to-day activities as they are when approaching the project as a whole.
Prospective project managers who lack sufficient time management skills will soon find themselves overwhelmed by the various demands that come with the job description.
Problem-solving skills 💡
It’s not uncommon for problems to crop up left and right during a project.
While risk management efforts made during project planning pay dividends during such times, it’s still up to you as the project manager to take care of problems.
Furthermore, no matter the experience level of a project manager, nothing short of clairvoyance will enable them to predict every potential issue.
Thus, a project manager needs to be someone who can think on their feet and find quick yet effective solutions even for unprecedented issues.
Otherwise, why would projects require project managers past the planning stage?
Negotiation skills 📜
Project managers must be effective negotiators.
They need to negotiate prices and make cases for the initial budgets and possible budget increases. Also, project managers need to be the ones to keep the project in check and safe from unrealistically ambitious clients who would otherwise expose it to scope creep, and so on.
It’s the project manager’s job to ensure that all stakeholders are happy and that the project is running smoothly at the same time.
It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to instead call this soft skill diplomacy.
Adaptability skills 🤹🏽
You could argue that adaptability isn’t a skill of any kind so much as it’s a personality trait.
But such semantics aren’t important — all that’s important is that you’ve got it.
Well, even though they are expected to go through the comprehensive effort of creating a solid project plan, project managers have to be flexible when it comes to adhering to said plan.
In a way, the plan is the best-case scenario.
Along with risk management, the plan is supposed to account for as many possibilities as humanly possible — but no plan is perfect.
Projects are often lengthy undertakings. It isn’t uncommon for some of their goals to change. A project manager with all the needed hard and soft skills who obstinately refuses to change course when a project demands a departure from the plan is not a reliable project manager.
How to improve project management skills
The requirements for being a project manager are lofty, but not unachievable.
Soft skills present the biggest hurdle here.
There is no course on adaptability just as there is no certification for problem-solving.
You can read up on these topics and try your best to apply what you’ve read. But, there are no guarantees that simply reading about leadership will turn you into a leader, but it’s a start.
However, if you can master the soft skills, then the rest should be much more manageable.
After all, hard skills are characterized by their teachability — so all that’s required on your part to master them is time and effort.
The following are some of the tried and true methods to improve project management skills:
Study up on relevant literature
With books and guides on project management and plenty of dedicated project management resources available online, you’ll find no shortage of relevant literature for improving your knowledge on this subject.
In addition to this guide on project management skills, our project management hub also has detailed guides on many relevant topics. So you’re just a click away from learning what project scope is, what deliverables are, what baselines are, or even what project management is.
If you’ve found this guide helpful and informative, checking out the rest of our project management hub is highly recommended.
Attend project management courses
Many companies outright refuse to consider applications for project manager positions from applicants who don’t have a project management certificate to their name.
To this end, attending a course for project managers may not only be useful but mandatory.
However, even if you don’t need a certificate to land the position of a project manager, it may still help to dip your toes into these waters in a more controlled and guided way.
If this is the case, you can purchase courses on project management through such sites as Udemy and SkillShare.
While these courses don’t carry a lot of weight in companies that require certified project managers, they can act as a good starting point to help you beat the steep learning curve of project management.
Join project management organizations
Those who are serious about project management would do well to join a dedicated project management organization, like:
- PMI (Project Management Institute),
- IMPA (International Project Management Association), or
- APM (Association for Project Management).
Membership in these organizations comes with many perks, not least of which is access to a wealth of paywalled resources and peer groups interested in helping out prospective members.
Tinkering with the software
Just like accountants need to be intimately familiar with Microsoft Excel, project managers ought to be familiar with project management tools.
The only difference is that there is no de facto Excel for project managers.
Since not all pieces of software are equally suited to all project management methodologies, project managers need to browse and — for lack of a better word — taste-test the software that’s available to them.
Statistics show that a paltry 29% of project managers check out more than two project management tools before settling down for the one they’ll use.
While it can be tedious trying out a dozen similar tools, this is a momentous occasion that’s worth the effort.
Learning from experience
Learning-by-doing is a viable strategy for obtaining many of the skills listed in this guide.
To be a project manager is to masterfully juggle all the hard and soft skills we’ve mentioned, but you don’t need to manage projects to learn the individual skills.
Just like Mr. Miyagi taught karate to The Karate Kid by having him do unrelated chores, you can develop some of the skills necessary for project management (even soft skills) by applying them to unrelated real-life situations.
Organizing a camping trip for your friends and family can help develop some communication, leadership, budgeting, and even negotiation skills. Personal Kanban boards and humble one-man projects can even help familiarize you with some project management methodologies.
Conclusion: Project management skills are aplenty — and you need all of them
Bakers bake, actors act, dancers dance, and project managers manage projects.
To do so, project managers are required to display proficiency with all of the abovementioned soft and hard skills.
While these requirements are extensive, they are not unreachable.
In any case, the segment on improving project management skills should give you good pointers on where to start.
Best of all, with a completely free yet comprehensive project management tool like Plaky, you’ll have a much easier time streamlining the implementation and development of all of these otherwise disparate skills into one platform.
- Beck, K., et al. (2001). The Agile Manifesto. Agile Alliance. https://agilemanifesto.org/
- Hughes, S. (2010, August 3). Five Critical Success Factors for Project Managers. NC State Industry Expansion Solutions. https://www.ies.ncsu.edu/blog/five-critical-success-factors-for-project-managers/
- Montgomery, O. (2021, May 25). Project Management Software Market Research Report. Capterra. https://www.capterra.com/project-management-software/user-research/
- Project Management Institute. (n.d.). Pulse of the Profession 2019: The Future of Work; Leading the Way With PTMQ. Retrieved December 24, 2021, from https://www.pmi.org/-/media/pmi/documents/public/pdf/learning/thought-leadership/pulse/pulse-of-the-profession-2019.pdf
- PwC. (n.d.). Insights and Trends: Current Programme and Project Management Practices; The second global survey on the current state of project management maturity in organizations across the world. Retrieved December 27, 2021, from https://www.pwc.com/cl/es/publicaciones/assets/insighttrends.pdf
- Pym, D. V. (2000). Risk Management. PM Network, 1(3), 33-36. https://www.pmi.org/learning/library/risk-management-9096
- South Dakota Department of Education. (n.d.). Soft Skills. Retrieved December 28, 2021, from https://doe.sd.gov/CTE/softskills.aspx
- Stuckenbruck, L. C. (1979). The Matrix Organization. Project Management Quarterly, 10(3), 21-33. https://www.pmi.org/learning/library/matrix-organization-structure-reason-evolution-1837