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The Essential Project Management Competencies: A 2017 Perspective

The Essential Project Management Competencies

We’re part way through Quarter 1 and you’re thinking what a great year it’s been so far at work. Your thoughts turn to what you should be doing for your professional development… and there’s a lot of choice.

I don’t have the time (or the requirement) to take a certification course, but I’m always prepared to develop the competencies I need to succeed. If you feel the same, what should you be focusing on?

The Competencies You Need As A Project Manager Today

I’d say that the competencies you should be looking to develop as a project manager are definitely ‘soft skills’ in their widest form. Soft skills include:

  • Communication
  • Leadership
  • Self-awareness
  • Confidence
  • Resilience
  • Teamwork
  • Business acumen
  • Influencing and negotiating
  • Networking

And, if you have to focus on just one, make it stakeholder engagement.

We are seeing more projects being affected by community action and involvement, it really is possible for a project to get stopped because the wrong people were engaged (or overlooked). After all, problems don’t stop projects, people do.

We’ve already seen ‘stakeholder management’ evolve in the project management language to ‘stakeholder engagement’ and a new chapter appear in A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide). I think the area will grow in importance over the coming 10 years.

The Warning Signs: Looking Out For Competency Gaps

Project performance is the main warning sign.

It’s not often possible to benchmark the performance of project managers against each other because the projects they are working on differ so widely. And if a project is stopped prematurely or cancelled you can’t immediately assume it was to do with the project manager’s poor performance: more and more we need to be reviewing and closing down projects that are not meeting their business case goals. It’s no one’s fault a lot of the time, it’s just the way that the business has evolved around the project.

But I think you’ll know within yourself if your project isn’t going right and it’s because you don’t have the skills to manage it.

Watch for this: knowing you have a competency gap is not the same as Imposter Syndrome! Imposter Syndrome is where you do have the skills really but you’re unable to recognise that they are there. This affects your confidence and leads you to spend far too much time worrying about what other people think of your performance. At its worst, it can undermine your career and hold you back from achieving the success you deserve.

Read more about Imposter Syndrome here

I mention all of this just to set the scene that it’s hard to define what a project manager’s performance should be when it comes to project results, and that’s often why competency gaps go unnoticed.

As a line manager or a Project Office manager, the best thing to look for is projects that skip between green and red, projects with a lot of ‘surprises’ and a long list of risks and issues that don’t seem to be managed. And complaints from customers; that can be very telling!

How To Develop Your Skills (and those of your team)

Understanding what you need to work on to improve your skills is the first step in working out how to develop them.

As a manager, peer reviews, project audits and quality reviews can be ways to identify project performance issues that might be an outlier due to competency. Then you can follow up with conversations: you may find that the individual in question is perfectly aware that they don’t have the required skills but no one has offered to help them do anything about it in the past.

Training is the obvious answer, but I don’t think this alone can really change competency. So much of ‘competency’ is tied up in long term behavioural shift, understanding workplace culture and lived experience. This is hard to get in a two-day training course. Supporting team members with mentors and coaches is a more practical way to effect long term change and to really grow the skills of your project management team with any depth.

And that goes for you as well: if you know you need to work on a particular skill or competency element, think about whether you would be well served in a classroom setting or whether there’s a better way to develop the skills you need.

The Essential Project Management Competencies



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About Elizabeth Harrin

Elizabeth HarrinElizabeth Harrin FAPM is a professional project manager and award-winning blogger behind A Girl's Guide To Project Management. She's passionate about demystifying project management and making tools and techniques work in the real world. She's also the author of several books including the PMI bestseller, Collaboration Tools for Project Managers.
Elizabeth lives in the UK with her family. She uses her organisation and project management skills at home, and also to help other bloggers at Totally Organised Blogging.


  1. tushar says

    7 March, 2017 at 8:42 am

    Hi, thank you for this post I agree with you that It’s not often possible to benchmark the performance of project managers against each other because the projects they are working on differ so widely. very useful information

  2. Rich Maltzman, PMP says

    2 March, 2017 at 10:46 pm

    Hi Elizabeth. WOW – you are really hitting a nerve – a central nerve – here. Loredana Abramo and I have a book at the publisher right now, with the title, “Bridging the PM Competency Gap”. And your list is right on target, so is our research and our case study with a major healthcare company.

    I’ll check back in when the book is actually out. For some reason, they want to have editors look at it. Sheesh.

    You always are so … timely. Thanks!


  3. Harry Hall says

    27 February, 2017 at 1:12 pm

    I like the idea of supporting team members with mentors and coaches to effect long term change. Finding mentors, coaches, and teachers can be tricky. In his book — The Little Book of Talent — Daniel Coyle suggests five ways to pick a high-quality teacher/mentor:

    – Avoid someone who reminds you of a courteous waiter
    – Seek someone who scares you a little
    – Seek someone who gives short, clear directions
    – Seek someone who loves teaching fundamentals
    – Other things being equal, pick the older person


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