These days, people know a lot. But all of that state-of-the-art knowledge leaves us with a nagging question: Why can't we get anything done? It's a mystery worthy of a business-school case study. If we're so well trained and so well informed, then why aren't we a lot more effective? Or, as Stanford professors Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert I. Sutton ask in their useful book, The Knowing-Doing Gap: How Smart Companies Turn Knowledge Into Action (Harvard Business School Press, 2000), "Why is it that, at the end of so many books and seminars, leaders report being enlightened and wiser, but not much happens in their organizations?"
To answer that question, Pfeffer offers 16 rules that explain why, despite so much knowing, there's so little doing -- and what you can do to get something done in your company.
1. Doing something requires ... doing something! The reason that we've fallen into this knowing-doing gap is that doing something actually requires doing something! It means tackling the hard work of making something happen. It's much easier and much safer to sit around and have intellectual conversations, to gather large databases, to invest in technical infrastructure -- and never actually implement anything.
2. Would you let a great talker perform heart surgery on you? The answer is a resounding No. Then why do people pay more to people who just talk? It is perplexing that people get paid more for talking about things than they do for actually doing them.
3. Do you think that you can outthink the competition? The good news is that companies are beginning to recognize that it's not only critical to know; it's also very important to do. Companies were able to outthink the competition -- for a while. But today, the advantage that you get from outthinking the competition lasts an incredibly short period of time.
Put simply, the speed with which your competitors can copy even the best idea has increased much faster than the advantage that you get from having come up with that idea in the first place. So while having knowledge is useful, it's not sufficient. It gives you much less competitive leverage than it once did.
4. Doing means learning. Learning means mistakes. 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.
5. Have no fear. One of the most pervasive emotions in the American workplace today is fear.The reason that there is so much fear is that everybody wants to build a learning organization, but nobody actually wants anyone to learn. Learning requires tolerating people who make mistakes. Learning requires tolerating inefficiency. Learning requires tolerating failure. Learning requires letting people try things that they've never done before, things that they probably won't be very good at the first time around.
6. Learning comes at a price. Pay it. The truth is that there's no easy way to encourage people to learn. You have to accept the fact that there's always going to be a trade-off between proficiency and learning. Learners are never as proficient as experts. So learning comes at a price. The price is that the experts might not get to use their expertise and that the learners might make mistakes. If you genuinely want to build a learning organization, you have to be prepared to make the necessary trade-offs and to pay the price.
7. Who me? I saw nothing! Honest! Another side effect of fear is that it absolutely retards the flow of information inside a company. So you have this anomaly: Companies pat themselves on the back as knowledge-management businesses, but because nobody wants to be the bearer of bad news, nobody inside those companies knows what the hell is going on. Yet another side effect is that fear causes individuals to focus only on the short term and on their own survival.
8. Talk ain't cheap. It's expensive -- and destructive. Companies often confuse talking with doing. Mistaking talk for action is worse than just a simple error: Talk can actually drive out action. Studies about the way that meetings actually work demonstrate that negative people are perceived as being smarter than positive people -- that is, being critical is interpreted as a sign of intelligence.
You see this attitude in business all the time: The fastest way for me to seem smart is to cut you down. So you come up with an idea, and I come up with a thousand different reasons why that idea won't work. Now everyone sees you as dumb and me as smart -- and we've created an environment where no one wants to come up with ideas.
9. Decisions, by themselves, is empty. The other trap that companies and people fall into is confusing making a decision with making something happen. Did we make the right decision? Did we have all of the information that we needed to make the decision? Is it possible that a better decision could have been made if better information had been produced? Well, it's always better to make a good decision than a bad decision -- but just making a decision doesn't change anything! Did you implement the decision? Did you actually do anything?
10. Oh no! Not another program! "Whenever you hear that a company is about to "roll out a program," it's not good news. David Kelley, founder and CEO of Ideo Product Development, has it right: "Enlightened trial and error outperforms the planning of flawless intellects." No matter how smart you are, you can't preplan everything and then roll out your program. What you want to do is to try some stuff and see what happens. And by the way, "enlightened trial and error" is the perfect anti-dote to the cynicism that exists in many organizations whose people have seen programs come and go.
11. Why do we do it that way? Um... Another huge obstacle to doing in companies is corporate memory: The memory of "how we've always done things around here" substitutes for "doing things the right way around here." The root, again, is fear. People don't want to make mistakes, and the best way to avoid making a mistake is to continue doing things exactly as they've always been done. Companies get trapped in a kind of circular logic: "We do what we do because it's the best thing to do. And it's the best thing to do because it's what we've always done."
12. Professor Otis Redding will now address the class.There's an old saying in business: What gets measured is what gets done. What's happening today is the flip side of that. Measurement has become a tyranny that makes sure that nothing gets done. Companies have managed to convince themselves that, since what gets measured is what gets done, the more they measure, the more stuff will get done.
13. Sure, it's a measurement -- but is it important? Here's another measurement problem: You can measure the wrong things. Measurement can, in fact, be crucial to achieving the right kinds of action -- but you must do the right measurements.
14. Pogo would be proud! Another piece of corporate behavior that prevents companies from implementing good ideas is ugly internal competition. American business has fallen in love with the idea that the best way to get people to do things well is to have them compete with one another. When it comes to learning, people learn best when they're operating in a mode that is less competitive. Companies that adopt internal competition as their operating style might as well post as their corporate mission statement that famous saying from the comic strip "Pogo": "We have met the enemy, and it is us."
15. What do I do? When do I get started? So what's the remedy? The remedy is to do something! If you want the future to be better than the present, you have to start working on it immediately. Remember: What you want is better than, not optimal. Your job is to do something today that's better than what you did yesterday. And to do something tomorrow that's better than what you did today.
16. Make knowing and doing the same thing. One final insight: For successful companies, there is no knowing-doing gap. There is no difference between how they think, who they are, and what they do.