Listen to the science

Jan 16, 2022

Justin Smith, SE, PE, MBA

Training opportunities that use the best of both worlds – science and experience – will bring your firm to the next level.

Imagine an engineer standing in front of you as you are faced with a high-risk problem. Would you feel reassured if he or she said, “I’m not sure what the current research says about this, and I have not consulted the code, but I think this should work? It feels like the right thing to do.” No, of course not.

Those inside and outside the AEC industry expect a professional’s decision-making to include up-to-date research, command of industry standards, and a heavy dose of experience. Science is the foundation for how high-stakes decisions should be made, and many engineers, architects, and construction professionals do a great job relying on the available body of scientific information when making high-stakes, technical or project-related decisions. So why do so many companies rely on anecdotes, rules of thumb, or “the way things have always been done” when making major decisions that impact their people and their profits? It’s a good question. I don’t know either.

There have been numerous articles and books on championing evidence-based and empirical approaches in favor of intuition, “gut” instincts, or what “feels right.” Much of this work started in the early 1950s when doctors believed that solely using their clinical judgement or “gut” was the best way to diagnose issues. Research tested this by looking at the decision-making process from two viewpoints. The first one relied on a clinical, subjective human judgment. The second one applied a data and research-driven approach, removing personal judgement factors. What was found is probably not that surprising: The data-driven methods were more accurate, supporting the use and foundation of empirically-driven decision making, and research today continues to support these conclusions.

Countless studies have indicated the superiority of data driven approaches, such as evidence-based approaches or algorithms, compared to human forecasters or decision-makers. These studies asked the question: Would someone trust a human’s judgment over a data-driven machine? The answer, in layman’s terms, was clear: human judgment over data. Objectively, the results defy logic.

In another example, participants in one study were more likely to tie their incentives to the predictions of the human forecasters even when they saw the algorithmic/data option outperform the human one. Think about that for a minute. People were more likely to believe that the person’s judgment was better than science than the reverse. Imagine if we designed buildings this way? It is as if we believe that empiricism is good enough for our project-related decisions, but not good enough for our people or business decisions. We trust science for decisions that impact the lives of the public that enter our buildings, but the decisions that we make that affect the lives of the people we lead do not rise to the level of warranting science.

Now let’s consider this for project management – how do you go about actually applying research-backed approaches to project management? Our project management training team here at Zweig Group has done the heavy lifting of looking through the science and research and we have worked to distill it into easy and tangible skills that can be applied in everyday interactions and projects. We have developed a one-of-a-kind training that gives the background data, provides the skills, and allows hands-on practice with experts to give you feedback.

When we began developing the project management training, we built the course around this science and applied it to the AEC field. There was no guessing on important skills; the topics covered were shown to increase effectiveness, decrease miscommunication and wasted time, and overall enhance the functioning of project managers. Because project management is at the heart of the AEC industry, it is critical to really reach for the science and understand how we can maximize our potential to lead teams and projects efficiently. Currently, many firms rely on experience and on-the-job training that is only based in “in my experience” and not in the science. Although, this experience is still important, basing project management in the data that is out there can take project managers and firms to the next level.

As an engineer who loves objectivity, black and white problems, and data, applying the principles of behavioral and management science to our teams, and using science-backed implementation models to implement these changes just seems like the obvious path forward; the research indicates our project managers will be better for it.

When you are planning your next training opportunity, review the description and see how much of the training relies on only experience and ignores the science that is available. One without the other will not provide you with everything you need or want. Best practices change and data-driven tools can help you move to the next level. Our next Project Management I course starts in February. Contact me below for additional information or with any questions.

Justin Smith is an advisor at Zweig Group, specializing in project management and leadership development. He can be reached at

Project Management for AEC Professionals is a course for project managers led by a panel of three experts, backed by proven research on how to best train project managers to be more effective and efficient. This course provides people-focused, science and data driven practical skills to help project leaders harness the power of their team and to create a better client experience. By addressing the most important aspects of any project – the people – this course will provide practical techniques that can be immediately implemented for a positive impact on any AEC team or business. Click here to learn more!

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About Zweig Group

Zweig Group, three times on the Inc. 500/5000 list, is the industry leader and premiere authority in AEC firm management and marketing, the go-to source for data and research, and the leading provider of customized learning and training. Zweig Group exists to help AEC firms succeed in a complicated and challenging marketplace through services that include: Mergers & Acquisitions, Strategic Planning, Valuation, Executive Search, Board of Director Services, Ownership Transition, Marketing & Branding, and Business Development Training. The firm has offices in Dallas and Fayetteville, Arkansas.