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29 October 2009

Bridging the knowing doing gap

Filed under: books, change, complacency, leadership — David Wood @ 12:50 pm

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”:

  1. They have leaders with a profound hands-on knowledge of the work domain;
  2. They have a bias for plain language and simple concepts;
  3. They encourage solutions rather than inaction, by framing questions asking “how”, not just “why”;
  4. They have strong mechanisms that close the loop – ensuring that actions are completed (rather than being forgotten, or excuses being accepted);
  5. 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“.

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4 Comments »

  1. I definitely agree with the five characteristics you list above; but would add one more. Most people (and companies) can identify problems/opportunities and create plans faster than they can execute plans. When I look at very productive companies they have an honest understanding of their execution capacity and strong prioritisation.

    An interesting side-note is that both of these characteristics are built-in to scrum; you measure your velocity and are not allowed to say that you’ll magically improve output by 30% next sprint, and sprint planning is exactly prioritisation.

    Comment by Antony — 29 October 2009 @ 1:14 pm

    • Excellent points Antony!

      These definitely fit into the bigger picture of why companies fail to implement what they know they ought to be doing.

      Comment by David Wood — 29 October 2009 @ 6:46 pm

  2. ‘The consultants eventually found that previous consultants had already been engaged and produced reports that matched what they themselves were going to recommend.’

    This is an interesting point, which might imply that the act of commissioning consultants to produce a report might be seen as an end in itself?

    Comment by Phil — 29 October 2009 @ 4:59 pm

    • There can be good reasons for a manager to engage a consultant with the hope that the consultant will write a report that backs up what the manager already knows. The consultant can bring more gravitas (and additional evidence) to the conclusion, allowing the manager to persuade higher management of the need to act in such-and-such a way. I’ve seen this done successfully in the past.

      However, the dysfunctional case is when a manager engages a consultant because that will take the heat away from a perceived issue. “We’ve got a problem here. But well done to Manager X for engaging consultants who will look into solutions”. Manager X gets the credit, and then the management team forgets about the issue, forgets about having engaged the consultants, and lets their report gather dust. There’s no follow through. The issue was important, but because the urgency level has dissipated, the management team stop caring about it. Oops.

      Comment by David Wood — 29 October 2009 @ 6:44 pm


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