Square One: The Knowing Doing Gap

tunnel by ThunderChild the Magnificent
Square One: The Knowing Doing Gap:
[Via Creativity Central]

Let’s go back 1999. Crown Prince Abdullah becomes the ruler of Jordan on the death of his father, King Hussein. Lance Armstrong wins first Tour de France. And most importantly Family Guy airs its pilot episode.

It’s also the year that Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert Sutton wrote The Knowing-Doing Gap. Nearly a decade later a significant number of companies have amnesia. A lot of mangers read the book. A lot of managers ignored what they learned.

Their preface does a masterful job of setting up the premise. “We wrote this book because we wanted to understand why so many managers know so much about organizational performance, say so many smart things about how to achieve performance, and work so hard, yet are trapped in firms that do so many things they know will undermine performance.”

In a nutshell: There are more and more books and articles, more training programs and seminars and more knowledge that, although valid, often had little or no impact on what managers actually did.

Nothing has really changed.


In my rubric, knowledge allows decisions to be made and actions to be taken. Data interacts with humans to gain context and become information. Information interacts with human social networks to become knowledge. While knowledge allows decisions to be made, widsom permits the correct decision to be made.

Knowledge, by itself, does not guarantee that the decision will be the correct one. It does permit a decision to be made, even if the decision is to collect more data. Wisdom often requires several false starts to be taken before the right path can be found. In many settings, groups actually learn more from their mistakes than from a success.


If you want to dig a little deeper, here are a few lines in an interview that Pheffer did with Fast Company

“If companies genuinely want to move from knowing to doing, they need to build a forgiveness framework — a tolerance for error and failure — into their culture. A company that wants you to come up with a smart idea, implement that idea quickly, and learn in the process has to be willing to cut you some slack. You need to be able to try things, even if you think that you might fail.

The absolute opposite mind-set is one that appears to be enjoying a lot of favor at the moment: the notion that we have to hold people accountable for their performance. Companies today are holding their employees accountable — not only for trying and learning new things, but also for the results of their actions. If you want to see how that mind-set affects performance, compare the ways that American Airlines and Southwest Airlines approach accountability — and then compare those two airlines’ performances.

American Airlines has decided to emphasize accountability, right down to the departmental — and even the individual — level. If a plane is late, American wants to know whose fault it is. So if a plane is late, what do American employees do? They spend all of their time making sure that they don’t get blamed for it. And while everyone is busy covering up, no one is thinking about the customer.

Southwest Airlines has a system for covering late arrivals: It’s called “team delay.” Southwest doesn’t worry too much about accountability; it isn’t interested in pinning blame. The company is interested only in getting the plane in the air and in learning how to prevent delays from happening in the future.

Now ask yourself this: If you’re going to be held accountable for every mistake that you make, how many chances are you going to take? How eager are you going to be to convert your ideas into actions?

So the final point from Square One is that a learning culture driven by creativity and innovation must allow mistakes to be made. The goal of mistakes is to learn from them, not to assign blame. People must be recognized for the attempt, not always for the solution.

One of the strong points of Web 2.0 tools is that they create much more openness and transparency. This makes it much easier to tell identify someone who pushes the envelope in order to help create knowledge that is useful to the organization. If the only way to succeed is never to fail, then the organization will eventually find itself with only followers and no leaders in creativity.

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