In his book, Outliers, Malcom Gladwell states that it takes roughly 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to fully master a subject or skill. Does this mean that a project manager who has been working full time in the profession for more than five years can be considered an expert? The answer is, “Definitely maybe.” Experience is beneficial for improving project management skills, but experience will only take you so far. There is another very important factors. Let’s start by understanding what Gladwell is saying, and some of his assumptions and constraints.
The 10,000 Hour Rule
Gladwell reached this conclusion by studying the lives of extremely successful people to determine the keys to their success. He studied concert violinists in Berlin, the Beatles, Bill Gates, and sports figures. He found that “natural talent” was not the crucial factor. Rather, it was that the elite in a profession had spent at least 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to get there.
Now what does deliberate practice mean? Deliberate practice, as used in this context, is practice in ways that push or stretch the skill level of the individual. It is not enough just to be doing activity within the profession or specialty, the individual must be striving to add to or deepen their skill set. So an athlete needs to be working on improving strength, skills, or endurance; not just playing the game. A musician is adding techniques and mastering more complex music; not just sitting around the campfire singing songs. A computer programmer is learning new computer languages and creating more complex functionality in their code; not just playing zap-a-zoids on their computer.
Through deliberate practice, an individual builds the skills and knowledge needed to be able to perform at the highest level in their profession. Gladwell found that the people who were proficient had at least 4,000 of deliberate practice, but the true experts had gone far beyond that number.
Limitations with the 10,000 Hour Rule
But further research conducted by Princeton has undermined the 10,000 rule. The Princeton research showed that the deliberate practice was very important for music, sports and games. In those areas it had nearly a 20% or greater impact on individual performance. However, it had very little impact in the areas of education and business professions. In those domains, deliberate practice had less than a 5% effect on performance.
So what is the cause for the difference? The Princeton researchers determine that deliberate practice is a big help in professions where there are stable rules and a rigid structure. The rules of tennis are specific and stable. The rules of classical music are well understood and accepted. However, in professions where the rules are dynamic and structures are evolving, deliberate practice beyond the levels needed to achieve proficiency does not lead to an appreciable increase in performance. Something else is required.
Expertise in Project Management
So where does that leave project management? There are standards and structures within the domain of project management. However, there are also changes occurring as new technologies and new structures are being applied. Ten years ago, if you were part of a “scrum,” you were on a rugby team. Now it is more likely you are involved in a fast-paced product development project. Twenty years ago, project teams that were not co-located relied heavily on regularly scheduled conference calls. Now, team members tweet, Skype, and instant message at all hours of the day and night. Thirty years ago, all project records were paper records stored at one location in file cabinets. Now, they are instantly available anywhere because they are stored in the cloud. These are illustrations of how the rules and structures of project management are constantly changing. I don’t know what will be different ten years from now, but I am sure it will be something that changes how we plan and manage project work.
What then is needed to create expertise in project management? Well, I do agree that it will take 3,000 to 4,000 hours of “deliberate practice” in the profession to become fully adept. This is consistent with the experience requirement for PMP. By the time an individual has that much experience, he or she has probably been on several projects – or at least on several subprojects within a program. They have had a chance to experience the full lifecycle of a project. They have had the opportunity to make some mistakes and have some successes. They should have the technical skills needed to become an expert project manager.
However, there is one more key skill that cannot be easily learned through deliberate practice. That is the ability to rapidly diagnose a crisis situation, quickly assess the magnitude and urgency of the risks that the project faces, and begin to take appropriate action. This is not a skill that is learned by practicing critical path calculations or earned value forecasts. For lack of a better term, this is the skill of crisis thinking.
This skill is developed through experience and retrospective learning. Doing lessons learned and after action reviews. I don’t mean the lessons learned session that is done months after a project is over when everyone has forgotten what happened; I mean a review of the situation the day after the crisis is quelled to understand what happened, what was done, what worked and what didn’t work. Sports teams do this with game film on the day after the game. The various branches of the USA military do this immediately after each mission. This type of regular review, when added to the skills from deliberate practice, will develop project management experts. However, too often, we just run from one crisis to another and never stop to learn.
So definitely spend the 3,000 to 4,000 hours needed to develop full proficiency in project management. But also, start a disciplined process of frequent evaluations of what went wrong – or right – as you go from project crisis to crisis. You won’t be a true project management expert until you have mastered this skill.