6 May 2008

PM Effectiveness - The Experience Trap

The six-monitor flight simulator"Experienced project managers can deal more effectively with complex software projects". Really?
This "conventional truth" is contradicted by INSEAD professors Sengupta and Van Wassenhove's research on experience-based learning. They tested the skills of hundreds of professional project managers using a computer-assisted game, built from professor Abdel-Hamid's renown simulation models for software development. The game was configured to represent a complex environment and most participants confirmed it replicated real-world project situations.
Some of the research results and conclusions are reported in the article "The Experience Trap", published in the February 2008 edition of HBR magazine:
  • experienced managers don´t outperform less experienced ones;
  • replaying the game didn´t improve their performance;
  • most managers believe project size underestimation and consequent quality, timing and cost problems are recurring flaws in complex projects.
According to the authors, many experienced managers are trapped by their rigid mental models to repeat intuitive and successful behaviours they learned in earlier and simpler projects. The same behaviours can be ineffective or even counter-productive in more dynamic and complex environments.
Research on project management effectiveness is relevant to both individuals, organisations and institutions. Leaders in the professional community, like SAP's Paul Ritchie, have been highlighting and reflecting on the article main points.
I agree with the colleagues that don't accept high failure rates nor unsurpassable barriers to continuous learning and professional evolution.
At the institutional level, it is important to emphasise the need of more complete skill sets or more adaptable methodologies. At the individual level we must address the central theme of the HBR article: how can we expand our learning possibilities and build management expertise from our professional experience? In this context, I think the most relevant aspects of our professional practice are:
  • How we think. Where does our thinking style enables or constrains our perception and learning capabilities?
  • How we learn. Do we consciously and actively pursue learning from experience?
  • How we position ourselves in the project and organisational context. Are we leaders or order takers?
Let's explore these topics on the next posts on Project Management Effectiveness.

Picture thanks to Włodi @flickr.


  1. Anonymous6:08 pm

    I carried out a research project a few years ago and one of the hypotheses I explored was this one. I too found there was no correlation between experience and project success.

    My findings are available at:

  2. I have also done some reading on the topic of lawyers, experience and quality and you guessed it; no correlation.