By Phred Dvorak at the WSJ.
Experience can work against you. That's what Rohit Girdhar found in 2004, when he took a test of his skills as a project manager.
Mr. Girdhar had spent eight years managing software programmers at General Electric Co. and product developers at Teradyne Inc. He says he thought the computer simulation would be a "piece of cake." Instead, Mr. Girdhar's project fell behind schedule and racked up errors -- largely because productivity declined when he added workers to meet an increased work load, as he had done in his prior jobs.
Mr. Girdhar, now director of corporate development in Asia for German semiconductor maker Infineon Technologies AG, says he is more careful these days before adding people to a project, and tries to question assumptions before making decisions.
The test Mr. Girdhar took is a sign of renewed skepticism among management researchers about the value of experience. Kishore Sengupta, an associate professor at France's Insead business school who designed the simulation, says users with 10 or more years of project-management experience collectively generated higher costs and more errors and missed more deadlines than less-experienced colleagues. "The more experience we have, the more overconfident we get," Mr. Sengupta says.
Vijay Govindarajan, a professor at Dartmouth College's Tuck School of Business, started looking into experience 25 years ago, when considering why some companies failed at long-range strategy. After studying businesses like Encyclopedia Britannica and Sears, Roebuck & Co., he concluded that some managers are so set in past ways that they can't cope with new situations.
Sears had built its success on department stores in urban areas, and missed the threat from Wal-Mart Stores Inc.'s discount outlets outside big cities, says Mr. Govindarajan. Encyclopedia Britannica long succeeded by deploying aggressive sales people to peddle $1,000-plus sets door to door, but didn't quickly confront the challenge of cheaper digital reference sets, like Microsoft Corp.'s Encarta on CDs. That caused profits and market share to plunge in the 1990s.
Companies "overestimate the value of experience," says Mr. Govindarajan. "Experience becomes a liability in times of change."
Mr. Sengupta says managers don't always learn the right lessons from their experiences, particularly when they involve complex projects. It's hard to judge cause and effect properly when there's a long time lag between an action -- hiring a worker, for instance -- and a result such as more output. Other conditions vary, further muddying the picture. Mr. Sengupta says managers typically don't change course easily, sticking with old habits and goals, even when situations change.
Paul Ritchie, head of global project management for customer services at German software maker SAP AG, says he has seen such problems. In the 1990s, SAP's project managers typically helped clients install big software programs to control major portions of operations, such as billing, personnel and inventory. Each installation could take more than a year; the project manager had to devise the best way to get the work done, says Mr. Ritchie.
Now, SAP offers smaller, more specialized software that can be installed in a few months -- the time it previously took just to plan a bigger project. Managers who previously focused on how to get work done now must worry about what software to install, and when.
That requires greater familiarity with clients' businesses and a more flexible mind-set, says Mr. Ritchie. Project managers also must deal with new types of customers, work faster and draw on the experience of others. Mr. Ritchie says some veteran managers struggle with these tasks.
For instance, some project managers used to require clients to submit formal "change orders" to tweak software, he says. That made sense for a big payment system. Now, clients may want to change the way sales data is presented on a marketing report; SAP managers must respond more nimbly.
To help project managers break old habits and learn new skills, SAP last year started using its own computer simulations. One exercise asks managers to help new employees adjust after an acquisition. "It lets [managers] think differently about their projects," says Mr. Ritchie.
Alan Over, a managing consultant at U.K.-based PA Consulting Group who participated in Mr. Sengupta's simulation, says he now questions his assumptions more. He seeks fresh perspectives from colleagues managing other projects.
In one recent project, Mr. Over was helping a U.K. government agency overhaul its supplier-management process. He started by managing forcefully, which had proved successful on an earlier project.
Then a colleague noted that the government project was expected to run much longer than the previous one, and questioned how agency employees would adapt to a top-heavy management style. Mr. Over says he changed his style to allow employees more autonomy.
"I try to force myself to be nervous," he says. "Whenever I find myself falling back on what I did last time, or think I'm doing well, I try to unsettle myself."