The Knowing-Doing Gap | Book Review

Use Your Leadership Philosophy to Fill the Gap

Academy Leadership’s focus on Personal Leadership Philosophy development, follow-up Action Plans and Executive Coaching address prevalent issues identified in Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert I. Sutton’s well-researched analysis questioning organizations incapable of taking positive steps forward.

This review emphasizes Chapter 4, highlighting fear as a primary factor hindering positive action, and Chapter 7 (case studies), as both chapters detail actual companies successfully traversing the Knowing-Doing Gap. Introductory chapters persuasively convince us of the widespread number of groups that seemingly know what to do, yet do not “do the right thing.”

The Gap is Big and It is Everywhere

Before reading Chapter 1, take a quick peek at the Appendix Survey (pp. 265-269), which sets up the book. Pfeffer and Sutton coined the Knowing-Doing Gap after asking:

“What prevented organizations that are led by smart people from doing things that they know they ought to do?” (p. x)

A key clue uncovered is that many top-performing firms – Southwest Airlines, Wal-Mart, Men’s Wearhouse, ServiceMaster, PSS/World Medical, SAS Institute, AES, Whole Foods Market, and Starbucksdon’t recruit at the leading business schools and don’t emphasize business degree credentials in their staffing practices (p. 3). Similar to findings in Scrum, the authors noted “A study of apparel manufacturing demonstrated that modular production, with an emphasis on team-based production, produced far superior economic performance along a number of dimensions when compared with the traditional… Nonetheless, in 1992 about 80 percent of all garments were still sewn using the bundle method…” (p. 7).

One could make the case corporate antibodies resist even proven, positive change, or that “Evidence… shows that knowledge of how to enhance performance is not readily or easily transferred across firms, or even within firms…” (p. 8)

Using the Appendix survey for a restaurant case study, the authors found in 17 of 25 management practices, there was a significant difference between what the managers thought was important for restaurant success and what they and the assistant managers reported using (p. 10). Much like Tom Peters’ finding that 87% of executives believe they are effective communicators while only 17% of their subordinates concur. A good reference table on page 11 shows differences between Knowing and Doing in 120 units of a restaurant chain.

We seem to focus much more on knowledge than doing, exemplified on page 16:

“But the view of knowledge taken by many consultants, organizations, and management writers is of something to be acquired, measured, and distributed — something reasonably tangible, such as patents.”

Let’s call this administrative knowledge, which is often presumed, that once possessed, will be used effectively, which in practice is often not valid. The corresponding Knowledge Management Projects Figure 1-1 (p. 17) shows that, by far, the most common initiatives undertaken focus on intranet creation and data warehousing and support software installation. The usual result: Adding technology without changing behaviors only extends the Knowing-Doing Gap.

Pfeffer and Sutton discuss the use of the word knowledge as a process rather than a thing as a helpful habit well worth developing (p. 21). Similarly, (p. 22) when benchmarking other organizations, most companies:

“overestimate the importance of the tangible, specific, programmatic aspects of what competitors, for instance, do, and underestimate the importance of the underlying philosophy that guides what they do and why they do it.”

The authors First Principle: If You Know by Doing, There is No Gap between What You Know and What You Do, or as David Sun (Kingston Technology) says, “just do what they tell you they want.” (pp. 24-26) Sure sounds a lot like our Platinum Rule.

Samples of common tendencies toward writing plans about what the organization should do, and collecting and analyzing chartjunk rather than taking action, launch Chapter 2, When Talk Substitutes for Action. The SAS Institute, New United Motor Manufacturing, Saturn, Continental Airlines and General Electric illustrate excellent examples (starting with Leaders Who Know and do the Work, p. 57) of managers actually involved with work processes, who focused on learning and translating knowledge into action. Performing After Action Reviews (AARs), designating specific, accountable individuals, and conducting feedback leading to something happening, are mentioned as key successful behaviors.

Driving Out Fear

Chapter 4, When Fear Prevents Acting on Knowledge, starts with W. Edwards Deming’s prescription for translating knowledge into action: Driving Out Fear (p. 109). With many organizations modeling behaviors after “Chainsaw” Albert Dunlap, it is no surprise apprehension remains commonplace in many organizations. Widespread trepidation may lead otherwise honest people to violate their principles, as the authors reflect:

“People who fear their bosses do more than hide bad behavior to avoid guilt by association. They have considerable incentive to lie about how things are going.” (p. 123)

Think about publicly traded companies concentrating only on the next quarter’s financials and that “Fear makes the short term almost the only thing that people see or focus on.” (p. 126)

In welcome contrast, PSS/World Medical addresses fear through their values:

“The right to communicate with anyone, anywhere, without fear of retribution is one of the core values at PSS.” (pp. 127-128).

Another positive example articulated by SAS Institute’s Vice President of Human Resources David Russo:

“We punish nothing. We reward creativity. Very much like Maria Montessori [the famous educator], we believe creativity should be followed, not led.” (p. 129)

Or, as George Zimmer, Chairman and founder of the Men’s Wearhouse, believes “We’re in the people business, not the suit business.” The chapter closes with Levi Strauss’ and Citibank’s contrasting approaches to large-scale workforce reductions illustrating prediction, understanding, control, and compassion. (pp. 134-135)

Examples Worth Following

Chapter 7, Firms That Surmount The Knowing-Doing Gap, easily tops the others, with energizing exploration into British Petroleum, Barclays Global Investment and the New Zealand Post.

John Browne’s legendary transformation of British Petroleum (pp. 216-221) essentially established a network of people using post-project appraisals (much like the aforementioned After Action Review) and four mechanisms: peer assists, peer groups, other federal organizations and personnel transfers.

• Peer assist – lending members of staff to another business unit.
• Peer group – confederation of business units facing similar strategic and technology questions.
• Federated organizations organically evolved addressing common issues affecting multiple peer groups.
• Particularly within the exploration division, BP emphasized knowledge and wisdom transfer via moving personnel.

Barclays Global Investment needed to become a truly global firm, and realized: (p. 224)

“We wouldn’t be who we are if we said it’s okay to have a confederation of different investment managers with different philosophies and different principles, because that’s not us.”

Barclays ruthlessly eliminated individuals not agreeable with core values and principles, committed to driving out fear, and vastly simplified organizational status categories. The authors’ case study reminds one of Stanley McChrystal’s Team of Teams, creation of a large-scale, unified, global integrated business, primarily determined to transforming knowledge into action.

The New Zealand Post’s great turnaround story, as described by Harvey Parker, managing director at the time, focused on:

“…significant changes in management style and practices… A new decentralized style and form of management was instituted, vesting accountability for operational decisions and resources at a local management level, at the closest point to the customer.” (p. 238)

The Post questioned everything from what positions were needed, discovered bulk as a critical cost driver rather than weight, and built its own transportation system, improving service delivery and aligning union employees with the firm’s mission. Wow!

The authors close with Eight Guidelines for Action:

1.   Why before How: Philosophy Is Important.
2.   Knowing Comes from Doing and Teaching Others How.
3.   Action Counts More Than Elegant Plans and Concepts.
4.   There is No Doing Without Mistakes. What is the Company’s Response?
5.   Fear Fosters Knowing-Doing Gaps, So Drive Out Fear.
6.   Beware of False Analogies: Fight the Competition, Not Each Other.
7.   Measure What Matters and What Can Help Turn Knowledge Into Action.
8.   What Leaders Do, How They Spend Their Time and How They Allocate Resources, Matters.

We should ask ourselves if and how much we (and our organization) are doing these things, and whether our core values embrace the transfer of knowledge to action.

JE | October 2015