Upgrading Soft Skills During Boom and Bust Business Cycles

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It is challenging for the oil and gas industry to survive and thrive despite continued low oil prices. How might individuals and companies prepare for a potential re-emergence of the boom cycle of our industry? During periods of low prices, companies focus on strategies to maintain profit margins, high-grading portfolios of assets, workforce, technology, and knowledge. In 2015, the SPE Soft Skills Committee (SSC) concentrated on soft skills during a downturn in our industry’s business cycle and SSC’s ongoing efforts to institutionalize soft skills within the SPE community (Milanovich-Eagleson et al. 2015). This article emphasizes the importance of soft skills in navigating the inevitable impact of systems and structures on human patterns of behavior.

Systems Dynamics View of Boom to Bust Business Cycle

The cyclical nature of business and the consequences of boom and bust is modeled by a game simulation developed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the 1960s (Senge 1990; Sterman 1989; 1992). The lessons learned from the simulation (Senge 1990; 1994; Sterman 1989) include the use of soft skills to deliver superior business results.

Systems influence patterns of human behavior. Simulations generally compress time and space so that the participants can experience the impact of their own decisions and actions. “All you have to do is meet customer demand and order enough from your own supplier to keep your inventory low while avoiding costly backlogs” (Sterman 1989). The results demonstrate the influence of the system structures on human behavior and the predictable patterns of human thinking. “Though individual games differ quantitatively they always exhibit the same pattern of behavior” (Sterman 1989). System dynamics and mental model soft skills are essential for managing the downturn and the return of higher prices.

System Principles To Leverage During Down and Boom Cycles

Lessons of the beer game simulation include (Senge 1994):

  • Structures influence behavior
  • Structure in human systems is subtle
  • Leverage often comes from new ways of thinking

These lessons suggest that systems thinking skills raise awareness and manage the influence of structures on human behavior. Soft skills offer a way to expand the portfolio of options regarding our individual thinking patterns, and to engage with others in perceiving the underlying structures. The idea of systems structures includes not only the visible but also the invisible structures. Examples include our patterns of interaction, processes, reward systems, belief systems, and thinking that continue to recreate the status quo. These structures sabotage more sustainable solutions to difficult problems that businesses face.

The majority of thinking is “re-thoughting”—creating very little new knowledge in our daily interactions (­Isaacs 1999). Our capacity to engage with others and to recognize the habitual patterns and mental models is related to our mastery of soft skills. The systems thinking discipline requires use of a higher level of soft skills to create new patterns of behavior and different outcomes. Each individual has her or his own perspective of biology, personal history, culture, and language. Perspectives are a way to insert information into customary patterns and cause a perturbation in the way of making meaning of events, situations, and circumstances.

Drawing from the work of Senge, ­Isaacs, and Richmond (2000), it is considered that things change all the time, life is messy, and everything is connected. When we struggle with a problem or an uncertain future, we simplify, try to create order, and work one problem at a time. What we need is to recognize that simplification and linear thinking can generate as many problems as they solve. Look at systems thinking as a discipline for seeing the whole system in its complexity without trying to simplify it into parts. It is a framework for seeing relationships instead of things and for seeing patterns instead of snapshots. It is a discipline for seeing the underlying structures that underpin complex situations.

Professionals train to gain technical skills and knowledge to prepare themselves for the business world. Gaining an understanding of how systems work and adding soft skills to their repertoire enables professionals to reach higher levels of performance. A system level gap analysis clearly indicates that understanding of system functions helps achieve a different outcome. All systems exist in a context of opportunities and risks. An accurate hypothesis of how the system delivers current state is critical and understanding of the individual role in the system is foundational. The term system is intended to include a department, a company, a team, and a partnership. The following five system principles may hold the “DNA” of the system’s performance:

  1. A system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets (Carr 2008).
  2. Systems have a purpose.
  3. No one individual can see the whole system.
  4. In large systems, cause/effect is not easily perceived.
  5. Information is the lifeblood of the system.

Personal mastery of soft skills is the fulcrum to leverage the five principles above, and will focus the individual to engage in the following six soft skills activities:

  • Engaging the whole system
  • Productive conversations
  • Mental models
  • Emotional management
  • Advocacy and inquiry
  • Balancing: task–self relationships

To explore systems thinking skills further, read The “Thinking” in Systems Thinking (Richmond 2000).

What Has and Is SSC Doing?

The SSC has engaged in activities to achieve the SSC vision “for SPE to be the professional society that provides opportunities for members to enhance their technical and professional competence including soft skills, to enable them as professionals to meet the world’s energy needs in a safe and environmentally responsible manner” (Milanovich-­Eagleson et al. 2015).

  • Launching soft skills on the SPE website ( It includes the current SCC roster, upcoming sessions, articles published, links to webinars, and a speakers’
  • Publishing soft skills articles in JPT, The Way Ahead, and local SPE section newsletters.
  • Connecting the SPE Competency Matrix with the competency matrix of American Association of Engineering Societies and the Department of Labor (JPT 2016).
  • Promoting dialogue on diversity and inclusion.
  • Establishing soft skills contacts in each SPE section.
  • Nominating soft skills candidates for SPE Distinguished Lecturers.
  • Presenting soft skills topics at conferences and section meetings.

ATCE Workshops

At the 2015 SPE Annual Technical Conference and Exhibition, the SSC introduced workshops with the Young Member Engagement Committee and with the Talent Task Force. The workshop themes were the following:

Diversity: Focusing on the Value and Relevance in Global Business. In today’s global business atmosphere, we must consider the variety of differences between cultures, genders, cognitive, leadership, and negotiation styles. This workshop expanded the paradigm to include an understanding of diversity in all areas of global business, so you can bring the value of diversity to your workplace. Understanding diversity and inclusion supports development of the soft skills of teamwork, cultural mental models, and conflict resolution.

Effective Communication: Gaining an Edge in the Industry. In this workshop, members learned the keys to effectively communicate a message through communication style, intent, impact, and overview. Effective communication is a key to conveying difficult messages, and generating trust and respect. It is useful in the industry whether one is a young professional, mid-career, or seasoned professional. Understanding effective communication supports development of the soft skills of negotiation, persuasion, and diversity.

SPE Professionals Exemplify Integrity and Ethics. Professional and ethical responsibility is paramount to every SPE member working in the petroleum industry. This workshop raised ethical awareness and facilitated SPE members in understanding and following the 12 canons in SPE’s Code of Professional Conduct. The goals were achieved by engaging the workshop participants in discussing case studies from the oil and gas industry, as well as from other industries. Understanding integrity and ethical behavior supports development of the soft skills of leadership and diversity.

Critical Thinking for Effective Problem Solving. Effective problem solving is characterized by taking into account the content and the context of the problem; understanding of what creates the current reality or status quo; the ability to perceive beyond the immediate assumptions, focus on the symptoms and explanations for the current state; the ability to think creatively and innovatively; and the application of a systems thinking approach to solving the problem. Understanding critical thinking supports development of the soft skills of leadership, systems thinking, creativity, innovation, and imagination.

Launching Webinars

In 2015, the SSC began a webinar series for SPE members. Topics include the following:

  • How to Present Your Paper, Byron Haynes
  • How to Write an Abstract, Byron Haynes
  • Strategies for Global Communication in the Oil and Gas Industry, Lori Dalrymple
  • Personal Mastery of Soft Skills, Narandja Milanovich and Gary Eagleson
  • How To Make a Breakthrough, Ford Brett
  • Negotiation and Conflict Resolution, Maria Fitch
  • Intrinsic Motivation: A Business Imperative, Giovanni Paccaloni
  • Personal Branding: Improve Your Chances to Stand Out, Molly Green
  • How to Start Your Own Business, Roger Hite
  • Beyond Bias and Stereotypes: Embracing Multiculturalism from Within, Maria A. Capello
  • Diversity Fuels Innovation, Betty Shanahan
  • Innovation: Soft Skills Requirements–You and Your Team, Egbert Imomoh
  • Strategic Thinking, Kamel Bennaceur

Recordings of the presented webinars can be accessed at

2016 Strategic Plans and Overarching Goals

In 2016, the SSC is in run mode after several years of drafting initiatives, creating workflows, growing the committee, and building momentum. The SSC continues to demonstrate the importance of soft skills and integrate best practices into the SPE mission of technology transfer by offering SPE members a variety of opportunities to enhance their technical and professional competence.


During this downturn in the business cycle of our industry, everyone is affected, including the local communities where our industry conducts business. We all know colleagues who face challenges finding jobs.  It is important that we recognize the business cycles during the past eras of our industry. With this broader view, we must high-grade technical, business, and soft skills.


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Narandja Milanovich Eagleson has more than 34 years of upstream oil and gas experience in facilities engineering, project engineering, engineering management, and internal consulting. She is a member of SPE’s Soft Skills Committee and has co­authored articles on the subject of soft skills in JPT and The Way Ahead. She holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in mechanical engineering from Rice University and master’s degrees in both counseling and depth psychology and a doctorate degree in depth ­psychology from Pacifica Graduate Institute.
Behrooz Fattahi holds PhD degrees in aerospace engineering and in mechanical engineering from Iowa State University. After 37 years of working in the industry, he retired from Aera Energy, an affiliate of Royal Dutch Shell and ExxonMobil com­panies, in 2014.  He was the heavy oil development coordinator at Aera and, in his last position as the learning advisor, taught several internal company technical courses including on the subjects of reservoir engineering and enhanced oil recovery. He initiated the SPE’s Soft Skills Committee in 2011, and served as its first chair from 2011–2013. Fattahi served as 2010 SPE President and 2014 President of the American Institute of Mining, Metallurgical and Petroleum Engineers, AIME. He is now president of the EnerTrain Institute, providing petroleum technical training and consulting internationally.
C. Susan Howes is a reservoir management consultant in Houston. She was formerly a reservoir management consultant at Chevron, with a prior role as learning and organizational development manager at Anadarko. She has coauthored several papers and articles on the topics of uncertainty management, risk management, and talent management for SPE conferences and publications. Howes is chair of the SPE Soft Skills Committee, previously served as SPE Regional Director for Gulf Coast North America, is a recipient of the SPE DeGolyer Distinguished Service Medal, and is an SPE Distinguished Member. She holds a BS degree in petroleum engineering from the University of Texas.
Greg Solomon is senior technical advisor, Mitsui Oil Exploration Co. Vietnam. A geoscientist by background, he has been actively involved with SPE for more than 20 years at the section, region, and board level, and was Regional Director for Northern Asia-Pacific on the SPE International Board of Directors from 2005–2007. He is the incoming chair of the Soft Skills Committee.
Kamel Ben Naceur is the International Energy Agency director for sustainability, technology and outlooks, overseeing the energy and environment, energy technology, policy, and energy supply and demand outlook divisions. His directorate oversees the production of the World Energy Outlook and Energy Technology Perspectives, and energy/climate-related policies. He has more than 35 years of experience in the energy and industry sectors around the world in both public and private service. His career at Schlumberger included management roles in Africa, North and South America, Europe, the former Soviet Union, the Middle East and North Africa regions; the position of chief economist; and president of the Schlumberger technology organization in Rio de Janeiro. In 2014, he became Tunisia’s Minister for Industry, Energy and Mines. He has served on the SPE International Board as Technical Director for Management & Information. He is a graduate of École Polytechnique and École Normale Supérieure of France, with an agrégation de mathématiques.


Upgrading Soft Skills During Boom and Bust Business Cycles

Narandja Milanovich Eagleson, SPE, GriffinWorks Consulting; Behrooz Fattahi, SPE, The EnerTrain Institute; Susan Howes, SPE; Greg Solomon, SPE, MOECO Vietnam; and Kamel Ben Naceur, SPE, International Energy Agency

18 August 2016

Volume: 68 | Issue: 9

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