Time lags between cause/effect — The Experience Trap

NOTE: 3rd post of a series on an HBR article by Prof. Kishore Sengupta, et al on The Experience Trap.

That time lags affect project results is common sense — any PM has experienced this frustration with the slow turn of HR onboarding, hiring consultants, etc.  But one would think we would know how to adjust.  From the article:

In the real world, there are delays between causes and effects, and it may become difficult to link them, let alone specify the relationship between them….  Regardless of the hiring and assimilation delays in their respective project environments, all participants [in the simulation] were unable to incorporate the effects of time lags into their planning decisions and suggests their mental models were based on a simple environment in which there was little or no delay between a decision and its result.

As one would expect, the length of the lag cascaded into project delays and cost overruns.  What was really interesting to me was that PMs often appear to have known what was right…

In postgame debriefings… [m]ost of the experienced managers stated that they would refrain from hiring and look to other options such as reframing the project, zeroing in on a few key priorities, or extending the deadline for completion.

But even after having just gone through a simulation, then articulating the correct future behavior, these PMs made the same errors of omission and commision when their follow-on projects had time lags.  Who knew that bureaucratic inertia, slow onboarding processes, etc. would have such far-reaching effects?

Role of Emotions in Learning Failures

For while the Experience Trap article discusses some reasons for “learning problems” in complex projects, the role of stress and emotion on decision making breakdowns isn’t sufficiently highlighted.  We too often “react” to problems and “jump right in.”

IMO, these failures are often a function of our reliance on primitive brain structures in stressful situations (recent Science mag article here [sub required] and summarized here).  As PMs are put into new and more complex environments, their stress level almost inevitably increases, which throws us back on our most basic thinking (if we’re lucky).  Fight-or-flight can override even simple rules, see the comments in the Forex blog here.

Perhaps we should be paying more attention to promoting basic mental and emotion hygiene among PMs.   Lord knows I’ve experienced this issue when I’ve had to take on more responsibility.  My most effective techniques for problem-solving have nothing to do with problem-solving.  When I’d take a step back from an issue, “clearing my head” by taking a walk, or otherwise exercising restraint of tongue and pen, it is amazing how much better I could see connections and options that I had missed before.

Mental Models Collapse in Complex Projects — The Experience Trap

NOTE: 2nd post of a series on an HBR article by Prof. Kishore Sengupta, et al on The Experience Trap.

Many PMs claim that any PM should be able to run any project in any industry, solution, etc. (I’ve found only top talent can really do this).  These first few sentences demonstrate one of the problems faced by PMs without that domain expertise — no frame of reference for project issues, risks, even the relative importance of stakeholder relationships:

When anyone makes a decision, he or she draws on a preexisting stock of knowledge called a mental model. It consists largely of assumptions about cause-and-effect relationships in the environment. As people observe what happens as a result of their decisions, they learn new facts and make new discoveries about environmental relationships.

However, this ability to learn is more limited than commonly assumed.  For while…

…people form a hypothesis about a relationship between a cause and an effect…, [t]he problem is that the approach seems to be effective only in relatively simple environments, where cause-and-effect relationships are straightforward and easily discovered. In more complex environments, such as software projects, the learning cycle frequently breaks down.

What do hardcore gamblers and PMs have in common?

Considering the failings of experience project managers highlighted in my post on “The Experience Trap,” this Science Daily press release seemed timely:

Gambling addicts don’t learn from their mistakes, according to a new study. The problem could be explained by a kind of mental rigidity that leads to harmful compulsive behavior in sufferers.

Hmmm…is DNA testing for project managers next? ;-)

Not learning from our mistakes — The Experience Trap

In 2006 I sponsored an INSEAD knowledge management program with Prof. Kishore Sengupta.  We got a chance to reconnect when I saw his Harvard Business Review article The Experience Trap (sorry subscribers only, but worth the reprint).  We had already started to deploy some of the suggestions independently — in KM and in training — but his article legitimized and enhanced our new approach.

The Experience Trap expands on how even experienced and seasoned managers still do not consistently…

…know how to efficiently address problems—if not prevent them altogether. What we discovered in our experiments, however, was that managers with experience did not produce high-caliber outcomes…. Our results strongly suggest that…[t]hey did not appear to take into account the consequences of their previous decisions as they made new decisions, and they didn’t change their approach when their actions produced poor results.

This finding corresponds with our real-world experience in the SAP PM community.  Ironically, the PMO itself also struggled to learn for experience and adjust our approach to this issue.

I’ll post on this topic over the next several days…I’d really appreciate feedback and input as we go along.

Why aren’t trainers better paid?

Demir at the SAP blog at techtarget.com (here) wonders whether trainer pay should be higher (here).  I think he has the importance of training and development, but I’m not sure that higher comp is coming any time soon.   Comments on his post (some edits for space) below:

SAP trainers don’t make as much money as implementation consultants…is this a logical state of affairs?  [S]tudies … isolated training as either the most important or one of the two most important (along with preparation) factors in the success of an ERP implementation. If so, it stands to reason that at least some ERP failures are due to companies’ failures to dedicate the necessary resources to training.

Agree with this as far as it goes, skimping on training is a common failure mode for projects…

It also stands to reason that more people — whether employees inside SAP-adopting companies or professional services providers — could stand to hone their training skills in order to mitigate the risk of ERP failure.

Is it that firms aren’t upskilling trainers or subsituting lower-skilled, cheaper trainers to save money?  That doesn’t conform to our experience.  Most often we see that troubled training approaches have:

  • Focused only on transactional training, not on the business context (e.g., “school solution” exercises, not company or industry-specific scenarios). 
  • Skimped on training because of the opportunity costs of pulling trainees “from the business.”
  • Sent second-line staff to training (because the opportunity costs of the previous bullet).
  • Not held attendees accountable for learning outcomes — training became a “mini-vacation.”
  • Reinforced the message that “training isn’t important” by not having management attend or attending but clearly be disinterested.

If training is as pivotal to a successful ERP implementation as the academic studies say it is, it may only be a matter of time before SAP trainers get more respect…and more money.

Per our experience above, I’m not sure this is happening anytime soon.  The drivers of training success aren’t often in the trainer’s hands.  Besides, implementation and functional people are around at the moments of truth: go-live and support.  They’ll have to live with the consequences of bad design, config, or coding.  The trainers are long gone.

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