Performance Implications of the Experience Trap

NOTE: 6th post of a series on an HBR article by Prof. Kishore Sengupta, et al on The Experience Trap.  To summarize the conclusions based on their experiments:

  • Project managers find it difficult to move beyond the simple mental models based on the simple projects they ran.
  • They ignore complications or use simple heuristics that work only in noncomplex situations.
  • They don’t improve their models based on their complex project experience.

What does this mean for your PMO if it continues to rely on on-the-job-training to develop PMs? (emphasis mine)

[I]mpressive backgrounds…have little bearing on their ability to manage complex projects. Many companies routinely find that replacing one veteran project manager with another has no impact.  Despite their experience with complex projects, both managers do not meaningfully change the mental models…formed in simpler and usually similar contexts.

If it makes little difference whom you put in charge, then managers will end up ascribing responsibility for failures not to their own decisions but to some other factor: overambitious planning or the demands of the finance department (or—as is often the case—a salesperson promising too much to the client and then setting unrealistic goals for the project). When that kind of belief takes hold, managers start to look in the wrong places for solutions to their performance problems.


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