Eight to Late

Sensemaking and Analytics for Organizations

Do project managers learn from experience?

with 2 comments

Do project managers learn from their experiences? One might think the answer is a pretty obvious, “Yes.” However in a Harvard Business Review article entitled, The Experience Trap,   Kishore Sengupta, Tarek Abdel-Hamid and Luk Van Wassenhove suggest the answer may be a negative, especially on complex projects. I found this claim surprising, as I’m sure many project managers would. It is therefore worth reviewing the article and the arguments made therein.

The article is based on a study in which several hundred experienced project managers were asked to manage a simulated software project with specified goals and constraints. Most participants failed miserably: their deliverables were late , over-budget and defect ridden. This despite the fact that most of them acknowledged that the problems encountered on the simulations were reflective of those they had previously  seen on real projects. The authors suggest this indicates problems with the way project managers learn from experience. Specifically:

  • When making decisions, project managers do not take into account consequences of prior actions.
  • Project managers don’t change their approach, even when it is evident that it doesn’t work.

The authors identify three causes for this breakdown in learning:

  • Time lags between cause and effect: In complex projects, the link between causes and effects are not immediately apparent. The main reason for this, the authors contend, is that there can be significant delays between the two – e.g. something done today might affect the project only after a month. The authors studied this effect through another simulated project in which requirements increased during implementation. The participants were asked to make hiring decisions at specified intervals in the project, based on their anticipated staffing requirements. The results showed that the ability of the participants to make good hiring decisions deteriorated as the arrival lag (time between hiring and arrival) or assimilation lag (time between arrival and assimilation) increased. This, the authors claim, shows that project managers find it hard to make causal connections when delays between causes and effects are large.
  • Incorrect estimates: It is well established that software projects are notoriously hard to estimate (see my article on complexity of IT projects for more on why this is so). The authors studied how project managers handle incorrect estimates. This, again, was done  through a simulation. What they found was participants tended to be overly conservative when providing estimates even when things were actually going quite well. The authors suggest this is an indication that project managers attempt to game the system to get more resources (or time), regardless of what the project data tells them.
  • Initial goal bias: Through yet another another simulation,  the authors studied what happens as project goals change with time. The simulation started out with a well-defined initial scope which was then changed some time after the project started. Participants were not required to reevaluate goals as scope changed, but that avenue was open to them.  The researchers found that none of the participants readjusted their goals in response to the change, thus indicating that unless explicitly required to reevaluate objectives, project managers tend to stick to their original targets.

After discussing the above barriers to learning, the authors provide the following suggestions reduce these:

  • Provide cognitive feedback: A good way to understand causal  relationships in complex processes is to provide cognitive feedback – i.e feedback that clarifies the connection between important variables. In the simulation exercise involving arrival / assimilation delays, participants who were provided  with such feedback (basically graphical displays of number of defects detected vs time) were able to make better (i.e. more timely) staffing decisions.
  • Use calibrated model-based tools and guidelines: The authors suggest using decision support and forecasting tools to guide project decision-making. They warn that these tools should be calibrated to the specific industry and environment.
  • Set goals based on behaviours rather than performance: Most project managers are assessed on their performance – i.e.  the success of their projects. Instead, the authors suggest setting goals that promote specific behaviours. An example of such a goal might be the reduction of team attrition. Such a goal would ensure that project managers focus on things such as promoting learning within the team, protecting their team from schedule pressure etc. This, the logic goes, will lead to better team cohesion and morale, ultimately resulting in better project outcomes.
  • Use project simulators: Project simulations provide a safe environment for project managers to hone their skills and learn new ones. The authors cite a case where introduction of project simulation games significantly improved the performance of managers on projects, and also lead to a better understanding of dynamic relationships in complex environments.

Although many of the  problems (e.g. inaccurate estimates) and solutions (e.g.  use of simulation and decision support software) discussed in the article aren’t new,  the authors present an interesting and thought-provoking study on the apparently widespread failure of project managers to learn from experience. However, for reasons which now I outline, I believe their case may somewhat overstated.

Regarding the research methodology, I believe their reliance on simulations limits the strength, if not the validity, of their claims. More on this below:

  1. Having participated in project simulations before, I can say that simulators cannot simulate (!)important people-related factors which are always present in a real project environment. These include factors such as  personal relationships and ill-defined but important notions such as organisational culture. In my experience, project managers always have to take these into account when making project decisions.
  2. Typically many of the important factors on real projects are “fuzzy” and have complex dependencies that are hard to disentangle.  Simulations are only as good as the models they use, and these factors are hard to model.

On the solutions recommended by the authors:

  1. I’m somewhat sceptical about the use of software tools  to supports decision making. In my experience, decision support tools require a fair bit of calibration, practice and (good) data to be of any real use. By the time one gets them working, one usually has a good handle on the problem any way. They’re also singularly useless when extrapolated to new situations – and projects (almost by definition) often involve new situations.
  2. Setting behavioural goals is nice in theory,  but I’m not sure how it would work in practice. Essentially I have a problem with how a project manager’s performance will be measured against such goals. The causal connection between a behavioural goal such as “reduce team attrition” and improved project performance is indirect at best.
  3. Regarding simulators as training tools,  I have used them and have been less than impressed. It is very easy to make  a “wrong” decision on a simulator because information has been hidden from you. In a real life situation, a canny project manager would find ways to gather the information he or she needs to make an informed decision, even if this is hard to do. Typically, this involves using informal communication modes and generally keeping ear to the ground. The best project managers excel at this.

So, in closing, I think the authors have a point about the disconnect between project management practice and learning at the level of an individual project manager. However, I believe their thesis is somewhat diluted because it is based on the results of simulated project games which are limited in their ability to replicate complex, people-related issues that are encountered on real projects.

Written by K

May 18, 2008 at 9:42 am

2 Responses

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  1. For me I did feel the examples used in the article were somewhat simplistic. The best thing was it did send me off on a search that did lead me to other very useful material in the area of cognitive feedback & cognitive bias…
    It might be worth noting that the very first flight simulators were also very basic things. Project simulators just need attention and development to advance their functionality and effectiveness. A lot of project management is about mastery of non-natural behaviours and attitudes – so anything that allows for *rehearsal* and reinforcement could be worth developing further.


    Andrew Sparks

    May 14, 2009 at 3:57 pm

  2. Andrew,

    Thanks for your comments. I found the examples a bit contrived too.

    I’m not entirely convinced about project simulators because most project management “situations” are caused by social dynamics – i.e. people related issues (which are inherently unpredictable individually). Flight simulators, on the other hand, are driven by physics.





    May 15, 2009 at 4:58 pm

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