Learning How to Handle Complex ProjectsIn the February issue of the Harvard Business Review," Kishore Sengupta and Luk N.Van Wassenhove, professors at INSEAD, along with Tarek K. Abdel-Hamid, a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School, offer an interesting example of circumstances in which on-the-job training falls short of what is needed for successful performance.
The situation in question is management of a complex project. The authors analyzed the manner in which seasoned managers handled a simulated complex project and concluded that simply accumulating years of experience is not sufficient for developing the needed expertise.
The basic reason for this is that complexity makes it very difficult to recognize cause-and-effect relationships, something that is essential for learning on-the-job. (The authors also point the finger at imperfect estimates of team member productivity and misguided efforts to meet initial goals even when those goals have become obsolete.)
To help ensure effective project management, Sengupta, Abdel-Hamid, and Wassenhove recommend combining on-the-job experience with formal training and decision support. Other recommendations are to:
- Provide ample cognitive feedback "What managers need is feedback that provides insights into the relationships among important variables in the project environment, particularly as the project evolves."
- Calibrate forecasting tools to the project In other words, make sure that decision support tools take the organization's industry, local environment, and staff skills into account.
- Set goals for behavior, rather than setting targets for performance. The recommended approach is a two-step process that begins with deciding on the behavior the organization wishes to foster (e.g., minimizing turnover on the project team), and then setting goals that encourage the desired behavior.