“I have a bad feeling about this…” – Why experience matters

Jumping to conclusions is efficient if the conclusions are likely to to be correct and the costs of an occasional mistake acceptable, and if the jump saves much time and effort. Jumping to conclusions is risky when the situation is unfamiliar, the stakes are high, and there is no time to collect more information. – Daniel Kahneman.

In many ways, construction project management is still largely more craft than profession. With limited options for formal accreditation or qualification, experience is highly valued. But why does experience matter so much?

One of the defining features of a complex project environment (especially in a crisis) is that it requires a constant stream of decisions to be made under time pressure and uncertainty. And the greater the time pressure, the more likely a person is to rely on intuition to make a decision. In other words, in the heat of a crisis, project professionals are likely to rely on a ‘gut feeling’ or intuition that something, somewhere, is going wrong. In fact, some research has found that up to 95% of decisions made in this kind of environment are intuition-based. The ‘gut feeling’ is a preconscious alarm bell warning for or against a particular course of action.

Research suggests that intuition is one of the few paths to making decisions that are both rapid and effective.

But absent experience, simple intuition can be dangerous. The ‘expert performer’ responds quickly and intuitively to unusual situations because they can draw on long-term memories of similar crises. The intuition of someone without those memories works differently. They are more likely to be basing their judgement on a simple set of rules that may not fit the context, and are thus more likely to be wrong.

Effective intuition is what supports an ability to improvise. The traditional or theoretical project manager may associate improvisation (negatively) with a lack of discipline and structure. But most experienced project professionals see a talent for improvisation as an essential survival skill.

Project professionals are often called upon to improvise their way out of novel situations. Whether it is a shipment held in port for unpaid duties, a drill rig stuck in a swamp, a broken-down crane, a turbine that has fallen off a truck or a contractor in financial distress, a project professional soon learns to expect the unexpected.

Project professionals will be more effective in a crisis if they have seen one like it before. And the more times someone has had that “Wait, I’ve seen this before…” experience, the more quickly they can respond with an effective solution. Equally, the more times they have tried something unsuccessful, the more quickly they can discard responses that will not solve the problem.

An effective professional is sensitive to the ‘weak signals’ in a project environment, recognises from past experience what they are likely to mean, and uses available tools and methods to respond. In fact, an ability to observe, learn, intuit and improvise is an essential skill for a project manager.

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