The experience trap

We've all seen the job adds that ask for experienced Project Managers (or any other function). The thinking behind this is clearly that an experienced project manager can hit the ground running and be of value to the organization immediately.

In a very interesting and sort of disturbing article in the Harvard Business Review the authors discuss a so-called Experience Trap.

They found, through various software development project simulations in which both experienced and junior project managers participated, that although the experienced managers had encountered similar situations on their jobs in the past, they still struggled with them in the simulations. As a result the authors came to the conclusion that they had not really learned from their real-life project work, either.

In the context of the project simulation three possible reasons are given for why the learning breaks down:

  • Time lags between causes and effects.
  • Fallible estimates
  • Initial goal bias


In all three cases the separate simulations they ran clearly show that experinced managers do not learn from past mistakes or past experience.

As a result the authors conclude that that managers find it difficult to move beyond the mental models that they have developed from their experiences in relatively simple environments or that have been passed on to them by others. When complications are introduced, they either ignore them or try to apply simple rules of thumb that work only in non complex situations.

This has significant implications for the organizations these experienced managers work for they argue:

  • Impressive backgrounds have little bearing on project results
  • Since it does not matter whom you put in charge managers will ascribe responsibility for failures to other factors and not their own decisions.

Fixing the learning - doing gap

The authors provide the following 5 approaches to fix the learning doing cycle:

  • Provide more cognitive feedback
  • Apply model-based decision tools and guidelines
  • Calibrate your forecasting tools to the project
  • Set goals for behaviour, not targets for performance
  • Develop project-flight simulators


All in all a very good and sobering article. My experience is not worth anything if I don't fix my own learning - doing cycle.