A May 2000 Fast Company article Why Can’t We Get Anything Done? poses a very good question:
These days, people know a lot. Thousands of business books are published around the world each year. U.S. organizations alone spend more than $60 billion a year on training — mostly on management training. Companies spend billions of dollars a year on consulting. Meanwhile, more than 80,000 MBAs graduate each year from U.S. business schools. These students presumably have been taught the skills that they need to improve the way that companies do business.
But all of that state-of-the-art knowledge leaves us with a nagging question: Why can’t we get anything done? It’s a mystery worthy of a business-school case study. If we’re so well trained and so well informed, then why aren’t we a lot more effective? Or, as Stanford professors Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert I. Sutton ask in their useful book, The Knowing-Doing Gap: How Smart Companies Turn Knowledge Into Action (Harvard Business School Press, 2000), “Why is it that, at the end of so many books and seminars, leaders report being enlightened and wiser, but not much happens in their organizations?”
Pfeffer and Sutton’s book “The Knowing Doing Gap” made a big impact on me when I read it.
The book recounts a story of a company paying consultants to come in and give them advice on particular strategy issues. The consultants eventually found that previous consultants had already been engaged and produced reports that matched what they themselves were going to recommend. The company had already received the advice which the consultants thought was best – but had failed to be able to act on that advice.
It’s a familiar story. Companies bring in external advisors who say things that management agree make sense, but … nothing changes.
My own takeaway from the book was the following set of five characteristics of companies that can successfully bridge this vicious “Knowing Doing Gap”:
- They have leaders with a profound hands-on knowledge of the work domain;
- They have a bias for plain language and simple concepts;
- They encourage solutions rather than inaction, by framing questions asking “how”, not just “why”;
- They have strong mechanisms that close the loop – ensuring that actions are completed (rather than being forgotten, or excuses being accepted);
- They are not afraid to “learn by doing”, and thereby avoid analysis paralysis.
If you don’t have time to read the whole book, there’s a 38 minute long download “The smart talk trap” from Audible that covers much of the same ground. It’s the audio version of a 1999 Harvard Business Review article by Pfeffer and Sutton:
The key to success in business is action. But in most companies, people are rewarded for talking – and the longer, louder, and more confusingly, the better. The good news is, there are 5 strategies that can help you avoid the trap.
Footnote: There’s one other angle that deserves a mention on this topic. It’s the angle of why change programs frequently fail. John Kotter has shed much light on this question. I wrote about this previously, in “Why good people fail to change bad things“.