The Science Behind Better Project Management Competencies

There’s been a lot of discussion and a whole spectrum of opinions expressed about what constitutes the best combination of domain knowledge, relevant experience, and personal competencies to ensure project manager success. Domain knowledge and experience are generally considered “hard” project management talent attributes, while personal competencies are considered “soft” talent attributes. The reason for this thinking is that domain knowledge and experience are objective and factual and the role they play in the success of a project manager is fairly clear. Personal competencies on the other hand, although they clearly exist and we “know” they play an important role, are fuzzy and hard to understand. Recent neuroscience research and psychological studies however, are offering us a deeper understanding of how those competencies really enhance the performance of those engaged in leadership activities like project management.

This blog was inspired by a recent discussion in the LinkedIn Group, “NeuroLeadership in Project and Program Management.” The discussion, and its linked reference sources, really resonated with me. It referenced an article from the Huffington Post, “The Neuroscience of Leadership”, by David Rock, Director of the NeuroLeadership Institute . The article describes neuroscience research that finally provides some substantive basis for the “gut-feelings” I’ve had for many years about critical project management leadership and interpersonal competencies. The research clearly shows that:
• Better, more innovative, decisions are made when our brains are focused and cleared     of “noise.” We’ve believed this to be true for a long time, but now there is scientific evidence to support the idea. By developing our ability to notice the subtle signals in our brains that are often obscured by the noise, we can increase the likelihood of finding the real breakthrough ideas. Most interesting to me is that this same research shows that our long-standing use of “brain-storming sessions” may actually be counter-productive to solving complex problems.
• When we can be aware of, verbally characterize, and regulate our emotional responses to situations, we reduce stress and make better decisions. I’ve always believed that this “emotional intelligence” was a critical skill for project managers, and this research provides substantive supporting evidence.
• Our brains are wired to be highly responsive to five social rewards or threats: status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness, and fairness. Understanding that the people on our project teams are driven by these conditions can improve the way we communicate, provide performance feedback, offer rewards and recognition and resolve conflicts.

I believe that domain knowledge and relevant experience are important and necessary talent attributes for project managers, but they are not by themselves sufficient. Adequate project managers will have the domain knowledge and experience necessary for the context of their project. The best project managers, however, know that their interpersonal and leadership competencies are what make the real difference between success and failure.

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About donmcalister

I retired at the end of 2011, after a 39 year career in the Aerospace industry as an Propulsion Engineer, Engineering Manager and Program Manager. My professional interests and expertise is in the areas of Program, Risk and Knowledge Management. I'm passionate about life-long learning involving a wide variety of topics and I'm committed to sharing my knowledge and ideas with those who are interested. My primary hobby is performing jazz music. I'm a jazz keyboard player, and vocalist, and I'm on the Board of Directors of the non-profit Simi Valley Jazz Club, which is dedicated to the preservation and promotion of jazz music from the '20's through the 60's.
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