Acting on Knowledge: Why is it so hard?

a big bridge

Jeffrey Pfeffer & Robert Sutton’s “The Knowing-Doing Gap:  How smart companies turn knowledge into action” is an easy-to-read book, like many of their other collaborative works.  This is not a conventional book review but rather my attempt to capture some important points and use them to launch some stories and reflections.

As the authors point out, given the plethora of business books published every year, and the high speed at which information is spread these days, no single organization is likely to possess any profound and unique knowledge about how to operate well.  Further, many organizations send their managers to business schools to get the latest “education,” or introduce the latest “knowledge” via hired consultants or in-house training programs.  Yet, how often do we hear about or read about successful organizational changes?  And when there are changes, why do they always occur with great difficulty?  And when people go to seminars or workshops, they return excited, motivated, and eager to try, but soon get stymied; why?

Reading Pfeffer and Sutton’s book can be a downer.  But, or perhaps because, most of you will recognize the problems described in the book.

a small bridge

Talk Instead of Act

There are, of course, many reasons for the lack of action.  For a starter, people prefer talking much more than doing, and often confuse lengthy or high-volume talking with actual action.  To put it crudely, talking is always easier, and often sexier, than the grunt work of doing.  What’s more, once we begin to actually take action, most organizations force themselves to keep track of the development of the actions, and that can be boring and tedious.  I suspect that this also underlies many failed “mergers & acquisitions;” (M&A) it is far more exciting to go through the negotiations and decision-making, but the actual execution of the merger once the deal is sealed is painstaking and laborious.

The big semi-government agency I worked for several years ago typified this phenomenon.  The managers did seem to respond to what I could bring to the organization; they always granted me time for interviews, but whenever action was needed, I felt like I was babysitting a bunch of 5-year olds.  It was ironic; they couldn’t sit still long enough to finish one major task.  They were either on travel or on their way to other “more important” meetings.  More talking!

History/Memory Can Inhibit

We often hear about “that’s the way it has always been done;” this becomes more insidious when history is remembered as the “good old days.”  This then translates into pressure for consistency.  People who want to push the envelope often are perceived as “trouble makers,” “not team players,” etc.  However, the converse isn’t symmetrical in that some troublemakers are genuinely so and some people are truly loners.  And by the way, loners aren’t always un-contributory; some tasks are more effectively and efficiently done by single persons.  The point is that it does take effort to gather new information, from both inside and outside the organization, and to weigh pro and cons for each action.  It is much easier to rely on routine.  Extending this trend of reasoning, we can see that a “strong culture” can be a double-edged sword.

Fear Stops Everything

small waterfalls constantly moving

What is really behind inaction?  Most often, fear and distrust.  Sometimes, this is a deliberate management technique.  For instance, there are managers who believe that if people are fearful of losing their jobs, or suffering from poor evaluation, they do as they are told.  There are CEOs who are praised by Wall Street for being “tough” and fearless of criticism, for taking decisive moves; this is usually in the context of downsizing or reorganization.

The belief that fear and distrust drives efficiency and productivity persists even though studies have shown the opposite.  When people are afraid, they avoid trying anything new, ignore common sense if it is likely to displease the bosses, and suppress information that would challenge the status quo.  They just hike along the known paths, rejecting new knowledge.

“Fear that might keep you from voicing your real thoughts is poison.  Almost nothing could be more detrimental to the well-being of the company…  Once an environment of fear takes over, it will lead to paralysis throughout the organization and cut off the flow of bad news from the periphery.”  — Andrew Grove of Intel.

To turn knowledge into action, one must be willing to attempt new ways of doing things. And that can lead to errors, which many organizations these days do not tolerate.  Yet, in the past – those glorious days when the US led the world’s technologies – Americans were encouraged to explore.  Many fabulous technologies, inventions, and creative solutions were gained through “trial and error,” through wandering.  Nowadays, we seem to have lost our appetite for “errors.”  We talk about trying something new, maybe even allow a bit of experimentation.  But mistakes?  No!    Most of our large R&D organizations these days are weighed down by compliance requirements imposed by government and society at large.  At this rate, it will take only a decade or two before China assumes the role of global technology leadership.

The authors give a few examples of organizations that managed to lessen fear even during difficult times such as laying off people/downsizing/re-engineering.  The principles are:  prediction, understanding, control, and compassion.  The enlightened examples are organizations that actually let people know, ahead of schedule, who’s being laid off.  When people know, they can plan, and hence, have some control over their future.  This also allows proper good-byes and regrouping for those who stay on.  These organizations explained the “real” reasons that some people had to go.  With decent severance pay, the exit process can be managed compassionately and smoothly.  In fact, in one cited example the company actually gained productivity during downsizing.  It can be done, just not easily.

I spent more space here because I think this is such a pervasive force in our lives, both within and outside of organizations, that we should pay more attention to it.

children are fearless and active…almost always

Competition Is Particularly Destructive Within An Organization

American society is seemingly addicted to the notion that competition is good for both individual and organizational performance.  Yes, it can be for such facets as individual marathons or other sports contests, or organizational tasks that emphasize procedural uniformity, or companies competing against each other within the industry.  But within an organization, competition often turns colleagues into enemies and units into antagonistic entities, and brings down productivity and creativity for the whole organization.  Even in the entrepreneurial arena, the myth is that successful entrepreneurs are competitive loners out charting new territory, when the truth is that most entrepreneurs have to rely on a vast and extensive network of friends, family, colleagues, other business people and entities as they blaze their starting path.  To nurture their baby enterprises they need to expand their networks even more.  Where is the loner?  This is one of my pet peeves and it was also the premise of my PhD dissertation.  As the pressure of globalization increases, the need for collaboration, instead of competition, is even more acute.

The authors cite a book, “No Contest:  The case against competition,” by Alfie Kohn, in which an exhaustive review of research on the impact of competition provides strong evidence of strong performance in the absence of competition.  Kohn emphasizes that “success and competition are not at all the same thing.  Competition need never enter the picture in order for skills to be mastered and displayed, goals set and met.”  He concludes, “superior performance not only does not require competition; it usually seems to require its absence.”  In fact, research does suggest competition inhibits learning and creativity.  When put in competitive conditions, people tend to focus on others rather than on the task at hand, on third party’s reactions rather than on how best they can accomplish their work.

Another prevalent myth in this country is the sports analogy to business.  Sports usually involve physical performance while business activities require complex intellectual maneuvering and novel undertaking.  I am not saying that one is better or the other is inferior; I am simply saying that these two arenas are too different to be used comparatively.

water catching a bit of rainbow

You Get What You Measure

When measurement focuses only on outcomes, such as sales volume, amount of production, publications, etc., it ensures that people focus on short-term results. When measurement gets too complex, people lose track of what is truly important:   “When everything is important, then, nothing is.”   People are not economic units or atomistic parts of an organization.  They are social creatures who interact with each other, and it is within these interdependent relationships that work gets done.  Pfeffer and Sutton stress the importance of measuring process instead of only outcome.

The Men’s Wearhouse offers a perfect example of measuring that which the company really focuses on:  “We are in the people business, not in the suit business.”  Part of the organizational focus is on developing their employees; they do not fire employees for first-time shoplifting, sometimes not even the second time.  By giving employees a second chance, the company inspires gratitude and loyalty.  In terms of specific measurement, the company stresses process, such as team development.  How do they measure it?  By focusing the total sales volume of the store, rather than individual’s record.  In fact, they have fired individual stars who refused to help other employees on the floor.

tarr bridge, a wise old bridge (in uk)…about 3,000 years old

Let me now give a quick summary of the recommendations the authors offer:

  1. Really grasp the philosophy of the organization; why is more important than how.  Just copying what others do usually does not lead to desired results.
  2. Understand that knowing comes from doing and from teaching others how.  This is in contrast to what the majority of organizations typically do, writing surveys, studies, reports, lists of recommendations…and forgetting the actual doing.
  3. Embrace accomplishment, not making fancy and elegant strategic plans or concepts.
  4. Accept mistakes as part of life.  Mistakes are unavoidable, especially when one tries on new ideas.  What are the organizations’ responses to mistakes?
  5. Drive out fear, which is the major enemy of knowing-doing gap.
  6. Recognize that competition brings more destruction than contribution, and be mindful when using analogy.
  7. Measure what really matters (it may help to know the organization’s philosophy!), pay attention to behavior that turns knowledge into action.
  8. Recognize that what top managers do, how they spend their time, and how they allocate resources, send powerful signals.

Knowing some of these causes is important.  However, knowing why there is a knowing-doing gap would get you nowhere…till you DO.  Throughout this book, the notion that really sticks in my mind is:  Let doing lead to knowledge.  Once you DO, you will learn.  Extending this notion, managers actually should consult people on the ground who are working the products, establishing relationships with customers, possessing the complete knowledge of how things are done.  Not the other way around.

books are to be used to make bridges

As I wrote this piece it became much longer than I intended, and there were several places where I wanted to say more.   At this point, I cannot tell which place I will go next week; the unknown can be exciting, yes?  Till then, though,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

Direct Contact:  taso100@gmail.com

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2 thoughts on “Acting on Knowledge: Why is it so hard?

  1. I love Alfie Kohn! Great thinker. He has been very helpful in the field of education and School Psychology, but obviously has relevance in organizational theory. Another example of great organizational focus are the Apple Stores. A friend of mine was recently trained and is now working at an Apple Store. He loves it and has been amazed about how they are taught to very much to be a people business.

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