The Knowing-Doing Gap

Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert Sutton are both professor of organizational behavior in Stanford University and this book, written in the late 90’s, remains as relevant as ever today.

In The Knowing-Doing Gap (How Smart Companies Turn Knowledge into Action) they attempt to address one of the main root cause of the problems organizations face in 21st century economy : why the ideas that are widely known and proven to be useful remain unimplemented ? How to bridge this knowing-doing gap and what are the results of companies succeeding in doing so ? How to tackle the paradox of companies that know too much and do too little, and who fails in transforming knowledge into action (and action back into new knowledge) ?

This is one of the most powerful book I’ve read about management together with Toyota Kata by Mike Rother. Both books have this thing in common : these are proposing meta-processes to address systemic issues faced by companies today. The objective is to align thinking and action and, while doing so, it is to deeply transform organizations into dynamic entities able to tackle any new problem arising.

Another classic reviewed by #hypertextual and another very long post (+2000 words – 10 mns read) …

Quantify the problem

Each year, billion of dollars are spent on management consultants by organizations seeking advice – one estimate for 1996 was $US 43 billions. But that advice is seldom implemented.

While investigating these questions the authors found out that management system and practices are the main differences between company that succeed in bridging this gap and the one that fail in doing so.

They’ve studied this gap in many different industries : energy, services, retail, transport, catering. In the later they even conducted a survey to measure this knowing doing gap, asking managers and staffs restaurant chains about good practices : the ones they know and the ones they do, making visible a significant difference.

Why Knowledge Management systems do not help

According to the Stanford professors, Knowledge Management systems (it was all the rage back then) do not address this issue, as in their view these systems are often divorced from day-to-day activities, they are formal systems which can’t store knowledge that isn’t codified, treat knowledge as a static material and as such fail to capture the tacit knowledge. Most importantly, they can’t deal with a given work philosophy.

Doing Vs Talking

The first principle offered by Pfeffer and Sutton is to embed more of the process of acquiring new knowledge in the actual doing of the task and less in formal training programs. Sadly, talking, rationalizing and conceptualizing about ideas are the preferred options for many managers and these do not allow to acquire knowledge as it is an action stopper.

Many leaders think that just taking a decision will be enough for it be implemented. Others spend important amount of times in doing presentations or documents. These will enter the endless loop of review / update cycles (what we call the analysis paralysis in the Agile world), cycles during which action remains on hold. Last, other managers think mission statements or planning are more important than doing.

One reason for that is that it is much faster and easier to look smart and gain stature through smart talks than smart actions. Sutton and Pfeffer join Mintzberg (Managers not MBAs) while pretending that MBA type of education foster this type of belief and behaviors.

Ease of understanding Vs ease of implementation

Jeffrey Pfeffer

Another great idea brought forward by the authors is the one related to the simple Vs difficult paradigm. The basic concept is that simple ideas are like low hanging fruits : they already have been found and implemented by the market. So the objective is to design difficult ones at organisation level (so that they are not easily imitated) to achieve sustainable advantage. Jargonesque language is a direct consequence of this idea.

But there’s something wrong with this belief : what is difficult to be imitated is what is difficult to implement, not necessarily what is difficult to understand. But since managers are mostly dealing with ideas and talks rather than with actions, they get easily confused. Not only that complex ideas supported by jargonesque language makes transforming knowing into doing difficult, but in addition (as French sociologist Michel Crozier reported) leaders using such language fail to engage their teams.

Avoiding hollow talks and promoting actions

The authors promote the following actions to avoid this trap :

  • Leading by example with leaders that do the work :  a striking example here is the IT industry with companies (unknown to them back then) such as Google, Twitter, Facebook and even Microsoft, companies developing software products and services and that are led by software developers.
  • Valuing simplicity and avoiding unnecessary complexity. All along the book, the authors refer to Lean production system and in that example they mention the simplicity of NUMMI organisation compared to standard american car companies
  • Language that mobilize action and follow-up decisions. The example here is the one of Jack Welsh and GE Work-Out process where the famous CEO fostered a culture of speed, simplicity and self-confidence.
  • Moving from “why we can’t do it” to “how to overcome obstacles”

The trap of history

After the culture of talking Vs doing, a second obstacle identified by the author on bridging the Knowing-Doing gap is the one of the company history, the good old it will never work here. One of the main reason is the pressure to remain consistent with past decisions which result from reluctance to admitting mistakes. More often than not, decisions are taken based on implicit and untested inaccurate models of behaviors and practices. This defines the limits of what is possible.

In order to build an organisation which “resist mindless actions”, the authors identifies 2 best practices from the AES corporation : decentralization and encouraging people to take on new activities within the organization. One passage from the 1997 company annual report reads as follows :

One of the delightful side effects of a fun workplace where individuals closest to the action make business decision is rapid learning. (…) Their responsibility is to get themselves educated before making a decision.

Back then CEO Dennis Bakke says that the better and the more competent central staff functions ares (IT, HR, etc ..) and the worst it is for the organisation. The better the centralized staff, the less responsibility people closest to where the work is done take for that work.

The opposite approach, implemented at AES helped in fostering a learning culture where people become keen on learning new things and getting into new positions.


There has been a strong bias for fear culture in the 80s and 90s, in particular with such CEOs as “Chainsaw Al” Dunlap in Sunbeam or Andrew Grove (who wrote a book called Only the Paranoid Survive) of Intel.

Chainsaw Al was very famous for tearing most of the management team apart as he would join a company. “I rarely see any good in what came before”. And the ones that remain are publicly humiliated by the big man. His story at Sunbeam ended bitterly with the stock price going down 80% during his 2 years at the helm of the company.

As for the fear culture Andrew Grove instilled in Intel, there are many stories available online on the web site FACE-Intel to document the company management transgressions.

Bob Sutton

Fear has many bad consequences. It destroys trust, fosters competition between different business units and professionals. This creates what psychologists call the MUM effect where people distance themselves from bad news and avoid reporting such bad news and problems. And ignoring problems prevent from transforming knowledge (there is a problem) into action (let’s fix it and build knowledge out of this action). In such a setting, there is no reason for people to work together for collective benefit and lots of reasons for them to undermine each other’s work and reputations.

Based on stories from SAS or PSS/World Medical, the authors observe that fear can be driven out of organisations with the following actions. (What’s remarkable here is that we find here principle which are the ones identified by Gary Hamel in Future of Management as basic principles to foster innovation. Most of them also are core principles of Lean Management the authors mention quite often in their book).

  1. Praise people who deliver bad news to their bosses
  2. Treat failure to act as the only true failure ; punish inaction, not unsuccessful actions
  3. Encourage leaders to talk about their failure and what they have learned from them
  4. Encourage open communication
  5. Give people second and third chances
  6. Banish people especially leaders that humiliate others (refer to the No-Asshole rule Sutton has written a few years after this one)
  7. Learn from mistakes when trying something new
  8. Don’t punish people from trying new thing

A stunning example is the one of Analog Devices which, within 2 years following layoffs, went from #1 top supplier of HP to #2 in worst suppliers black list.

Another interesting list of principles is the one the author give to drive out fear during hard times. If you ask me, these are principles that are relevant in any change initiative and echoes the SCARF model (Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness, Fairness) :

  • Prediction : give people as much information as possible about what and when it will happen
  • Understanding : explain why these actions are taken
  • Control : give people as much influence as possible over what, when and the way things happen.
  • Compassion : convey sympathy and concern for disruption and emotional distress


Together with fear, history, talking and complexity, the authors identify in measurements another obstacle for organization to turn knowledge into action. Their recommendation is to :

  1. keep measurement global in scope, focussing on factors critical to organizational success (systemic indicators as in Lean).
  2. focus on process and less on final outcomes : this allows to guide action ans decision-making.
  3. have measurement aligned on company culture – which means to balance values measurement with cost-accounting
  4. measurement system can always be improved – dynamic culture of continuous improvement
  5. few metrics : the more the metrics, the more complex and the more the attention of people in the organisation is diluted in trivial issues
  6. measurement close the loop, auditing what the organisation is doing.

Amongst the barriers in implementing these measurements, authors see conventional accounting and standard measurement practices.

Internal competition

Last obstacle identified by the authors is the one of internal competition. The main issue with internal competition is that it turns people into two groups : winners and losers. The belief is that internal competition is good for performance. It is mostly embedded by leaders who have built their success on winning in their studies, professional career etc …

But the invalid assumption is that winning is better than doing well. What is observed (ever since Deming) is that it does more harm than good as it gives incentives to people for not sharing information and best practices. It even encourages people to undermine other people’s work.  great example is the one of tablet-PC at Microsoft. The counter example of Men’s Wearhouse to foster team spirit and eradicate internal competition between sales people is telling.

They quote Roderick Kramer essay “Cooperation and Organizational identification” : the willingness of individuals to cooperate with other members of an organization is one of the major determinants of organizational effectiveness and efficiency.

Eight guidelines for action

Very interesting to see that Pfeffer and Sutton choose the BP case of implementing collaborative online software as their first example of companies succeeding in bridging the knowing-doing gap. Anyway : these are the authors recommendation to turn knowledge into action :

  1. Why before how. Their basic idea is to start with why. Simon Sinek made a great speech to defend this approach, I can’t recommend you enough to check it out.
  2. Knowing comes from doing and teaching others how. This is what Chris Argyris calls the double loop learning. This is also one of the pillars of Lean management.
  3. Action counts more than elegant plans and concepts
  4. There’s no doing without mistakes. What is the company response ?
  5. Fear fosters knowing-doing gap so drive out fear (another strong Deming principle)
  6. Beware of false analogies : false the competition not each other within the organization
  7. Measure what matters and what can help turning knowledge into action
  8. What leaders do matters

A strongly recommended read that remain relevant as ever in the 21st century.


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