Does experience equal competency?

by Christopher Cook

Experience is not the only thing that counts when it comes to competency. One of the Moneyball skills in project management is competency. The early 2000’s Oakland Athletics of Major League Baseball (MLB) used analytics to perfection. They scouted for players who had very little name value yet a huge upside on the diamond. Rather than focus on home runs and pitcher win-loss records, they emphasized on-base percentage, walks, and slugging percentage.

Because they were a team with a comparatively small market and support base, spending hundreds of millions of dollars to build a roster was not an option. They needed an advantage over the big market teams. The New York Yankees or Los Angeles Dodgers can whiff on a big free-agent signing because they had the money to do so. Oakland could not afford to miss on anybody.

So, Oakland decided to look at metrics that debunked the traditional measures of success and trailblazed the use of sabermetrics. A blind monkey can sign a talent like Bryce Harper or Manny Machado for huge dollars. But the skill and demonstration of competency by the team came from signing a journeyman and turning him into a starter.

Scott Hatteberg is the official Moneyball figurehead. He signed a one-year, $950,000 contract with Oakland Athletics, and they converted him from a catcher to a first baseman. His statistics never wowed anybody, but the Athletics saw one that stood out to them, the on-base percentage. This fitted with the team’s view – Billy Beane, the Athletics General Manager, says on-base percentage is one of the most affordable skills on the market – and Hatteberg became an everyday player on a team that went to the playoffs two straight seasons. He went from a throwaway talent to a starter on a budget.

What does this story have to do with project management?

One of the Moneyball skills in project management is competency. How often have you seen someone whose credentials are longer than their actual name? You can bring them on your team or work with them and quickly realize those credentials are masking the actual level of competency.

Those credentials are like racking up home runs in a meaningless blowout or compiling wins on a team that averages eight runs a game. Those bloated statistics look great on paper but, in reality, mask some mediocre performances.

Competency determines how valuable a person’s experience is. Some projects are winners from the start. Everything falls into place, and you cannot go wrong. Other projects are doomed from the beginning but teach those involved lesson after lesson while kicking your butt. Which project manager would you prefer? The one where things came easy or the one who got dragged through the mud but came out alive, having learned lots and is able to adapt?

To put it in baseball terms: the project manager where things come easy hits meaningless home runs and racks up coincidental wins. The project manager who takes the butt-kicking is willing to take a walk to get on base or move a runner over when it is the correct play.

How can we decide competency in an individual or a team?


Looking for patterns is key. Are the same mistakes or successes happening time and again? Someone can get lucky every so often, but if someone continues to be awarded projects time after time, their competency is obvious. The inverse is true as well. If every project submission gets denied or there are repeated failures, a lack of understanding exists.

A red flag for lack of competency is someone who takes notes, relies on those notes, cannot read their own handwriting, then gets lost immediately when pushed out of the nest on their own. A repetitive task should not take months to understand when notes are taken and hours have been dedicated to the task.

Be on the lookout for these patterns. They tell a story words cannot.

Always being right

If you never make a mistake or blame someone else, your competence level is low. Secret time, no one knows everything. That includes you, your boss, your spouse, etc. Narcissism costs competency. You can have all of the credentials and degrees your heart desires, but if you think you know everything and do not listen to those around you, your competency suffers.

This is the type of person who never listens, talks over others, and has an answer for everything. “I don’t know” is never said. The confidence some people have in their lack of knowledge is surprising, and people new to a management role can often fall into this trap. They pretend to know while speaking in front of subject matter experts.

Take my industry of property management. I deal with plumbers, electricians, HVAC contractors all day, all week. If I start talking shop without the specialist knowledge they possess, do you think they will trust me? Even if I am telling someone else’s recap of the events, they still see through the thin veil of knowledge I possess.

Thinking I am right and trying to deliver the message from a position of faux-understanding only makes me look weak. Competency is developed through learning from others, especially subject matter experts. If they are the ones in control of the conversation and you steer it through questioning, a relationship forms; if you speak to them like a know-it-all and they are a child, a chasm is created.

A competent person is someone who is supported by their willingness to always learn, to take every opportunity to improve their skills and knowledge.

People skills

Retention not only refers to knowledge but also people management skills. Of course, competent people have great knowledge retention skills. They can take tests well, they’re on top of their areas of specialism. They build successful businesses from their expertise. But an often overlooked aspect of competency is their people management skills. The human resource is an organization’s most valuable.

It is often said and bears repeating, “Project management is people management.” All of the technical knowledge in the world is not going to save a fir from losing people if you cannot connect to them on a personal level. Playing the boss and being a boss are two different things. People are not robots. They do not have programs that act based on commands given to them. They act based on feelings and emotions. “I mandate you to follow our work practices and processes” does not work for humans. Robots respond to those commands immediately. Treating people like robots increases your turnover rate. Knowledge retention is great. Human resource retention is best.

Competent managers understand this. Experience may play a role in terms of managers learning how to relate to co-workers, but it definitely does not translate automatically.


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