# 5 - The Knowing-Doing Gap
by Randi Brenowitz
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# 5 – The Knowing-Doing Gap
does so much education and training, business research, and books
and articles produce so little change in what managers, team leaders,
and organizations actually do? Jeffrey Pfeffer & Robert
Sutton (The Knowing-Doing Gap, Harvard University Press,
2000) believe it is because of the knowing-doing problem—the
challenge of turning knowledge about how to enhance team performance
into actions consistent with that knowledge. They argue that the
gap between knowing and doing is more important than the gap between
ignorance and knowing. They say that because there are so
many activities and organizations involved in acquiring and disseminating
knowledge and "best practices," there cannot be many important
performance secrets. Although knowledge creation, benchmarking,
and knowledge management are important, transforming knowledge
into team action is critical to organizational success.
a team has a knowing-doing gap when:
Talk is a Substitute for Action
talk is a substitute for action
memory is a substitute for thinking
fear prevents action
measurement obstructs good judgment
internal competition turns friends into enemies
One of the main barriers to turning knowledge into action is the
tendency to treat talking about something as equivalent to doing
something about it. Talking about what should be done, writing
plans about what the team should do, and collecting and analyzing
data to help in decision-making can guide and motivate action.
But just talking about what to do isn't enough. Something
has to get done, and someone has to do it. Too often, however,
managers and team leaders act as if talking about what they or others
ought to do is as effective as actually getting it done.
& Sutton found that many teams which have overcome this problem
have a culture that:
values simplicity and does not reward unnecessary complexity
uses language that is action-oriented
have follow-up processes to ensure that decisions are implemented
have career systems that bring people into leadership positions
who actually have knowledge of the team's work processes
do not accept excuses and criticism for why things can't be
done, but rather reframe the objections into problems to be
When Memory is a Substitute for Thinking
People on teams that use memory as a substitute for thinking often
do what has always been done without reflecting. Existing
practices are rarely examined to see if they make sense today.
are three main ways that organizations can avoid relying on the
past as a mindless guide to action.
First, people can start a new team or sub-team that is designed
to have a distinctive character, free of the constraints of
the "parent" team.
Second, through sometimes dramatic means, the team leader can
make people mindful of problems with old ways, make it difficult
to use the old ways, or create and implement a new way of doing
Third, teams can be built and managed so that the team members
constantly question precedent and resist developing automatic
reliance on old ways of doing things. This questioning can be
built into the core work of the team.
When Fear Prevents Action
Fear helps creates knowing-doing gaps because acting on
one's knowledge requires that a person believe he or she will
not be punished for doing so—that taking risks based on new information
and insight will be rewarded, not punished. When people
fear for their jobs, their futures, or their self-esteem, it is
unlikely that they will feel secure enough to do anything but
what they have done in the past. Fear will lead them to
repeat past mistakes and re-create past problems, even when they
know better ways of working.
drive away fear and inaction teams should:
praise, pay and promote people who are willing to deliver bad
treat failure to act as the only true failure
encourage even the leader to talk about failure
encourage open communication
give people second (and even third) chances
punish those who humiliate others
celebrate mistakes when something has been learned from them
reward people for trying new things
When Measurement Obstructs Good Judgment
Everyone knows that what gets measured is more likely to get done,
and what is not measured tends to be ignored. People want to do
well on dimensions that are important to the team, and what is
measured is presumed to be important. The most aggressive
minds on a team rarely focus on measurement system, but instead
concentrate on more exciting things like vision and strategy—leaving
the "people with the green eyeshades" to worry about measurement.
trouble with this is that even when team members recognize that
the measurements are not in service of the vision and strategy,
they will continue doing those things they are being measured
& Sutton found that on teams where the measurement system
helped—rather than undermined—the ability to turn knowledge into
action, the teams measured things that were core to their values
and intimately tied to their basic goal, even if such measurements
were more difficult to do well.
Internal Competition Turns Friends Into Enemies
Competition inside firms is generally thought to promote innovation,
efficiency, and higher levels of team performance. Examples
of such practices include (1) forced distributions of performance
evaluations, so that only some fraction of people can earn the
highest evaluation; (2) recognition awards given to individuals;
(3) contests between teams or departments for various monetary
prizes; and (4) published ranking of team's performance. Each
of these practices creates a zero-sum contest in which the success
or rewards of one person or team must come at the expense of another.
These types of systems undermine concepts of collaboration and
experimentation. Under them, people will do what is safe
and what they think will create a short-term "win."
overcome destructive internal competition, teams should:
focus people's attention and energy on defeating external competitive
threats, not on fighting internal employees or teams
build a culture that defines individual success partly by the
success of the whole team
move people into team leadership spots who have a history of
collaboration and information sharing
model the right behavior via team leaders who act in collaboration
with each other
Throughout the book, Pfeffer & Sutton describe real case studies
of organizations that were and were not able to overcome the knowing-doing
gap. In the appendix, they provide a Knowing-Doing Survey
that can help any team or organization assess its gap.
problem with this book (& even this newsletter) is that it
is yet another illustration of acquiring knowledge rather than
doing something about it. So here's my advice—stop what
you‘re doing right now (yes, I’m really telling you to stop reading
this newsletter), get up from your computer, and go do
something to implement some new knowledge that you have acquired
in the last 24 hours. Helping you "do" better is the ultimate
goal of Brenowitz Consulting.
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by Larry Bossidey & Ram Charan (Crown Business, 200).
This book provides a view of how to close the gap between results
promised and results delivered, whether running a small team
or an entire company.
the Knowing-Doing Gap in Project Management" by J. Thomas, C.
Delisle & K. Jugdev of Athabasca University. This in depth
look at how to apply the knowing-doing concept to project management
can be downloaded from http://athabascau.ca/mba/pdf/Selling%20PM.pdf.
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New at Brenowitz Consulting
Randi’s speaking schedule
Tuesday, September 24, 2002
International Conference on Work Teams
"Jumpstarting High Performance Teams:
Single-Function, Cross-Functional, & Virtual"
Tuesday, February 25, 2003
Association for Quality & Participation
"Virtual Teams: Hyper-Productive or Just Hype?"
Wednesday, April 9, 2003
Institute for Supply Management
"Leadership, Team Essentials, and the Supply Chain"