Or What I Learned from Reading The Knowing-Doing Gap: How Smart Companies Turn Knowledge into Action
When do you really know something? When do you know how to play the guitar, how to drive a car, how to run a business meeting? As you read the last lines, you probably pictured yourself playing the guitar, driving the car, or standing in front of a meeting room.
Did anyone picture themselves reading a book about the guitar, watching videos about how to drive, or answering a quiz about good meeting management? I’m guessing not. Because we instinctively know that while these activities can mark the start of learning, we haven’t really acquired a skill until we’ve done it – sometimes a lot.
But in both business and academia, we often assume reading, watching, discussing, or planning for action is the same as action. And that leaves a knowing-doing gap, where we know what to do and how to do it, but we don’t actually do it.
The Knowing-Doing Gap is written by Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert I. Sutton. Pfeffer is a Professor of Organizational Behavior in the Graduate School of Business at Stanford University. He’s researched and written several books on organizational theory and people management. Sutton is a Professor of Organizational Behavior in the Stanford Engineering School. He’s published award-winning articles and book chapters on management and organizational theory.
For this book, the two authors spent several years studying how companies collect data, hire consultants, and create grandiose plans for change but never act on it. They’ve identified several roadblocks that stymie progress and discuss how some companies got around them.
I found two big surprises in this book:
- Business culture often values talking, writing, and theorizing over action.
- Internal competition does more harm than good.
Stuck in the tar pits of talk
As a writer and speaker, I was a bit dismayed to find talk, discussion, and planning listed as a basic cause of the knowing-doing gap. But just like “analysis paralysis,” companies can spend all their resources preparing for a change, theorizing about it, offering presentations, and writing reports.
The authors point to Xerox’s failed attempt to create a TQM program. They spent years creating documents but never executed any of the ideas.
Writing and talking is safer than action. It’s less messy and uncertain. And it feels great. Everyone loves a grandiose plan. But few love the tedious uphill slog of making it happen.
The authors also note that corporate culture tends to reward talking over action. Those who sound smart get promoted. People who primarily criticize other plans are seen as insightful.
We prize a complex theory over a simple action because the former seems more intelligent and therefore more valuable. We even encourage people to show their expertise by using language that no one else can understand, making communication ineffective and abolishing all hope of action.
Over the course of my career, I’ve seen the adulation of complex, overwrought, abstruse theories that in the end proved useful only for finding out how much detail you can squeeze onto a PowerPoint slide. At the time, I followed the examples of leaders and accepted that these presentations must represent excellent ideas. I was in the tar pit of talk with everyone else.
Pfeffer and Sutton found that companies who avoid the talk trap
- Promote from within and reward experience with the company’s processes.
- Value simpler solutions over complex ones.
- Use action-oriented language in planning.
- Reframe criticism and excuses as challenges to overcome.
Fighting the enemy within
Internal competition has long been considered a good way to increase overall performance. And in some sports, like racing, having an adversary works well. But the authors point to research proving that teamwork yields better performance in business.
And while many companies talk about teamwork (there’s that talk again!), they reward individual performance. It’s no wonder communication suffers, silos grow up, and a company spends its energy defeating itself.
The book offers the example of Microsoft, where the culture of rewarding individual contributions discouraged software engineers from collaborating, so the highly complex software products became riddled with bugs that could have been prevented with better cooperation.
My early experience taught me that work is a competition for individual recognition, and I never questioned the assumption. I probably fostered that attitude in my own business and lost some employees as a result. But working with small business owners today, I’m seeing more emphasis on team performance.
Companies who pull together
- Measure, encourage and reward teamwork as well as individual contributions.
- Focus energy on external competition.
- Define individual success partly in terms of peer success.
- Have leaders who model teamwork among themselves, especially across divisions.
Crossing the gap
The authors dive into other action-killers as well, such as change-resistant cultures, fear and mistrust of leadership, and measurements that reflect a skewed picture of performance.
But some of the most interesting case studies in the book are those companies who cross the gap. Barclays Group Investments (BGI) is one of these. The company faced the challenges of going global while innovating and implementing new investment products and services to support their growth. If they could not turn knowledge into action, they would not survive.
The authors detail the BGI story and how they avoided the action traps with simple, practical steps:
“The lessons from BGI are that these straightforward actions are effective and provide tremendous leverage in building an organization in which knowledge develops and is transformed into action. The specifics of BGI’s actions are no less important because they appear to be so simple and straightforward. They worked, and for good reasons.”
Pfeffer and Sutton close the book by boiling everything down to 8 guidelines for closing the gap. I won’t list them all here, but the second one resonated most with me: “Knowing comes from doing and teaching others how.”
They quote McKinsey managing director Rajat Gupta, “The notion of apprenticeship and mentoring is that you learn by observation, learn from doing together with someone who’s done it before … You [also] learn a lot when you’re thrown into a situation and you don’t have a lot of help.”
Can these words result in action?
Pfeffer and Sutton wryly recognize the irony of a book about the importance of taking action. Most of us will read this book, nod along, and put it aside. But perhaps the true leaders among us will manage to leap the gap, turn ideas into action, and make a difference.