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Is your experience getting in the way of your knowledge? February 18, 2013

Posted by Jason in Daily PM.
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All too often in the consulting world, we find individuals in client organizations who have been beating their heads against a wall for years.  They are smart people with good ideas who, for various bureaucratic or political reasons, have been unable to effect real, lasting change in their organizations.  We probably all know people like this – happy with their work in theory, but frustrated that valuable improvements remain ignored or impeded.

However, there is another category, not lacking good intentions, who inadvertently contribute to the first group’s angst.  I had the chance to observe this firsthand – in my own home workshop.

Perhaps something of a dying art, I build plastic models (especially during cold Montana winters).  Here is my latest project, a Ford Trimotor that I picked up two years ago, but which sat in storage during my time in Australia:

Trimotor Model

As a project manager, such a “project” seems a good fit with my day job, but it occurred to me that I approach my models differently than a real project.  Definitely, there is a budget and I maintain my own personal standards of quality.  I establish the deliverable, determining whether I build the kit “out of the box” or include any modifications or new techniques.

But when it comes to the other fundamental leg of any true project – time – I let the art-like nature of the model go with the flow.  Like other hobbies, a kit like this might wallow half-done in a box somewhere for months or years.  There is no pressure to complete it “on time” – if ever.

A true challenge lay in developing a project schedule around a new kit, predicting the time involved for each stage of production.

Model Project

And this is where such a simple plan revealed just how little my 30 years of model building experience actually “knew”.  Like many of my clients, I thought I knew the job.  But if anyone asked how long it took to build a typical model, I would have only the most rudimentary estimate.  Too often, my recollection is clouded by time and the various delays that go along with any hobby – a kit that takes just hours of working time may actually have taken weeks to complete.  It is, of course, a supposedly relaxing diversion, so I wasn’t exactly keeping meticulous records.

In many organizations, these same conditions can – inadvertently or otherwise – stymie a change initiative.  People that have done the job for 10, 20, or 30 years may indeed know their jobs better than anyone else, but that doesn’t mean they know as much as they could – especially if they require improvement.  Without a solid baseline and a clear understanding of the work involved, there is no way to effectively manage the job itself, let alone any changes.

Hence the challenge, and one of the benefits of having an outsider’s point of view.  The consultant is in a position to objectively measure and quantify critical aspects of the job (the easy part) and communicate them with sensitivity and understanding to the client team members (quite difficult – this is where consultants make their money).  The overall goals are the same – the team wants to do the job better and the consultant wants to help them achieve the target.  The team provides the experience and the knowledge, while the consultant provides the tools to separate what they know from what they think they know.  And if there’s anything that recent psychological research has shown, it’s that we think we know significantly more than we really do.

It can be quite uncomfortable to face the cognitive dissonance that comes from raw data highlighting your mistakes (my next model is already off target, and I’ve barely scratched the surface).  But if you are truly dedicated to constant learning and becoming an expert in your field, the hard lesson comes with a big payoff – more efficient operations, better control over variances, and improved morale as problems are anticipated and handled at the source rather than after the fact.

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