Practice versus Experience

by Geof Lory

I spent four years in high school studying and translating Latin with professors who were particular about the precise meaning and intention behind words. There could be many different translations for the same word based on the context in which the word was used. Of course, this is not unique to Latin. The same can be said about most languages; this was just the time in my life when that understanding surfaced for me.

Studying Latin cultivated what my wife says is a sometimes annoying propensity for choosing my words carefully, especially when trying to express a certain feeling. So, I chose the title of this article deliberately. It is composed of two similar but also very different words, Practice and Experience, which are often used interchangeably but can convey substantially different meanings. I'll resist the temptation to quote Webster's Dictionary, but I hope to convey the subtle differences and similarities, and how understanding them may encourage you to be more conscious when you practice and experience project management and parenthood.

There are some things I really enjoy practicing. As a golfer, and a self-admitted range rat, I can spend hours at the driving range hitting balls. Time like this is practice that is also an experience. By doing it, I am becoming practiced and experienced. Both are commonly thought of as positives, but I don't make the assumption that one begets the other or that either is intrinsically good, as evidenced by anyone who plays golf, but not for a living. Anyone who has ever stood on the practice green before a round and made half a dozen 3-foot putts in a row and then missed a short putt during the round to win knows the difference.

Before my daughters were old enough to legally drive, they practiced driving because I wanted them to build up their experience. Making circles in the parking lot was giving them practice, but not really a lot of experience behind the wheel. To me, that kind of practice is not completely real; it is only half real. It lacks the element of really being there, doing it live, in the moment, when it counts. For me, that is the experience. But, what practice lacks in real-time, it makes up for in repetition. Continual practice will create an unconscious ability to repeat just about any action, which makes the live experience more of a live practice. Practice is not experience, but they are close enough to be brothers.

In project management, I practice activities like risk management through early risk identification, analysis and planning. These are hopefully proactive and preemptive efforts, done deliberately with fore thought ahead of time when there is time. The practice, through risk scenarios, prepares for the potential experience of the risk itself. It also affords the critical element of learning and developing of competencies: feedback, which is necessary to complete the explicit learning process.

This distinction is not lost on teachers of music and sports--both practical/experiential activities--where both the experience and the repetitive practice are normal parts of the skills development process. My mother, who was quite a successful softball coach, often said, "A coach coaches during practice and watches during the game." During effective practice, feedback is immediate, intentional and direct. Situations can be set up and repeated to shorten the heuristic feedback loop. Consequences are usually geared toward learning and not otherwise meaningful. The players practice, but they are also experiencing it. During the game, only a fraction of the practiced behaviors may be experienced and only a time or two each, yet the consequences usually carry more weight. In contrast, training of other more cognitive-centric skills--such as many of those we learn during our academic years--often involves practice that to a large degree lacks any real experience. This is the dilemma most college graduates have in finding their first job: no experience.

Where am I going with all this? At first glance it would seem as hard to practice project management as it is to practice parenting. But how many parents with multiple children are surprised at how different their first child is from their second or third? How can two kids from the same parents growing up in the same house be so different? Is it genetics, or is it possible that we learned something from our "practice" on the first offspring? My two daughters are as different as day and night. Go figure.

If we stay awake for it, regular practice can be an experience and every experience can be practice. I have a project manager friend who says, "Experience is not the best teacher, evaluated experience is." We all have experiences that would qualify as practice. All we need to do is take the time to interject the evaluation that allows us to learn from them. Failure to do this is a lost learning experience.

Over the past five years, I have been fortunate to be associated with a group of highly experienced and well-practiced project managers. My colleagues at Fissure Corporation have taken the concept of experiential practice and brought it to the realm of project management through computerized project management simulation. Simulations are an outstanding way to learn, as evidenced by their extensive use in other fields where lives are on the line, like flying a plane. In a simulation, teams practice the hard and soft skills of project management, compressing 20+ weeks of experiential practice into just a few days. The learnings have more staying power because the practice was an experience.

Most of your projects may not be life or death, even though they may feel like it, but they don't have to be to reap the benefits of this style of learning. However, I could make a case for parenting being a life or death competency, at least for the well-being of my children. If only there were a parenting simulation required of us all before becoming "certified parents."

In the meantime, enjoy your project management and parenting experiences. Perhaps with this simple reminder we will take the time to turn them into practice and learn from them. As for me, I'm off to practice my putting. I wonder if I will ever learn.

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