Issue # 5 - The Knowing-Doing Gap

by Randi Brenowitz

Issue # 5

Brenowitz Consulting is pleased to bring you this issue of Tools for Teams, our bi-monthly electronic newsletter.

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Issue # 5 – The Knowing-Doing Gap

Why 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.

Generally, a team has a knowing-doing gap when:

  • 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
When Talk is a Substitute for Action
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.

Pfeffer & 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 overcome

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.

There 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 things.
  • 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.

To drive away fear and inaction teams should:

  • praise, pay and promote people who are willing to deliver bad news
  • 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.

The 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 against.

Pfeffer & 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.

When 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."

To 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.

The 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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Additional Resources

  • Execution 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.
  • "Exploring 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

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What’s New at Brenowitz Consulting

Randi’s writing

Randi’s speaking schedule

  • Tuesday, September 24, 2002

  • International Conference on Work Teams
    Dallas, TX
    "Jumpstarting High Performance Teams:
    Single-Function, Cross-Functional, & Virtual"
  • Tuesday, February 25, 2003

  • Association for Quality & Participation
    New Orleans
    "Virtual Teams: Hyper-Productive or Just Hype?"
  • Wednesday, April 9, 2003

  • Institute for Supply Management
    Satellite broadcast
    "Leadership, Team Essentials, and the Supply Chain"



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