Acting on Knowledge: Why is it so hard? Part 1

Column by Elena Yang

Jeffrey Pfeffer & Robert Sutton’s “The Knowing-Doing Gap: How smart companies turn knowledge into action” is an easy-to-read book, like many of their other collaborative works.

This is not a conventional book review but rather my attempt to capture some important points and use them to launch some stories and reflections.

In today’s space, I will delineate three difficulties in acting on knowledge. I will finish the remaining two more obstacles and a few recommendations next week.

As Pfeffer & Sutton point out, given the plethora of business books published every year, and the high speed at which information is spread these days, no single organization is likely to possess any profound and unique knowledge about how to operate well.

Further, many organizations send their managers to business schools to get the latest “education,” or introduce the latest “knowledge” via hired consultants or in-house training programs. 

Yet, how often do we hear about or read about successful organizational changes? When there are changes, why do they always occur with great difficulty? And when people go to seminars or workshops, they return excited, motivated, and eager to try, but soon get stymied; why?

Reading Pfeffer and Sutton’s book can be a downer. But, or perhaps because, most of you will recognize the problems described in the book. 

1. Talk instead of Act

There are, of course, many reasons for the lack of action.  For a starter, people prefer talking much more than doing, and often confuse lengthy or high-volume talking with actual action. To put it crudely, talking is always easier, and often sexier, than the grunt work of doing. What’s more, once we begin to actually take action, most organizations force themselves to keep track of the development of the actions, and that can be boring and tedious. I suspect that this also underlies many failed “mergers & acquisitions;” (M&A) it is far more exciting to go through the negotiations and decision-making, but the actual execution of the merger once the deal is sealed is painstaking and laborious. 

The big semi-government agency I worked for several years ago typified this phenomenon. The managers did seem to respond to what I could bring to the organization; they always granted me time for interviews, but whenever action was needed, I felt like I was babysitting a bunch of 5 year olds. It was ironic; they couldn’t sit still long enough to finish one major task. They were either on travel or on their way to other “more important” meetings. More talking!

2. History/Memory can inhibit

We often hear about “that’s the way it has always been done;” this becomes more insidious when history is remembered as the “good old days.” This then translates into pressure for consistency. People who want to push the envelope often are perceived as “trouble makers,” “not team players,” etc. However, the converse isn’t symmetrical in that some troublemakers are genuinely so and some people are truly loners. And by the way, loners aren’t always un-contributory. Some tasks are more effectively and efficiently done by single persons. The point is that it does take effort to gather new information, from both inside and outside the organization, and to weigh pro and cons for each action. It is much easier to rely on routine. Extending this trend of reasoning, we can see that a “strong culture” can be a double-edged sword.

3. Fear stops everything

What is really behind inaction? Most often, fear and distrust. Sometimes, this is a deliberate management technique. For instance, there are managers who believe that if people are fearful of losing their jobs, or suffering from poor evaluation, they do as they are told. There are CEOs who are praised by Wall Street for being “tough” and fearless of criticism, for taking decisive moves; this is usually in the context of downsizing or reorganization. 

The belief that fear and distrust drives efficiency and productivity persists even though studies have shown the opposite. When people are afraid, they avoid trying anything new, ignore common sense if it is likely to displease the bosses, and suppress information that would challenge the status quo. They just hike along the known paths, rejecting new knowledge. 

“Fear that might keep you from voicing your real thoughts is poison. Almost nothing could be more detrimental to the well-being of the company … Once an environment of fear takes over, it will lead to paralysis throughout the organization and cut off the flow of bad news from the periphery.” Andrew Grove of Intel

To turn knowledge into action, one must be willing to attempt new ways of doing things. And that can lead to errors, which many organizations these days do not tolerate. Yet, in the past – those glorious days when the U.S. led the world’s technologies – Americans were encouraged to explore. 

Many fabulous technologies, inventions, and creative solutions were gained through “trial and error,” through wandering. Nowadays, we seem to have lost our appetite for “errors.” We talk about trying something new, maybe even allow a bit of experimentation. 

But mistakes? No! Most of our large R&D organizations these days are weighed down by compliance requirements imposed by government and society at large. At this rate, it will take only a decade or two before China assumes the role of global technology leadership.

The authors give a few examples of organizations that managed to lessen fear even during difficult times such as laying off people/downsizing/re-engineering.

The principles are: prediction, understanding, control, and compassion. The enlightened examples are organizations that actually let people know, ahead of schedule, who’s being laid off. 

When people know, they can plan, and hence, have some control over their future. This also allows proper good-byes and regrouping for those who stay on. These organizations explained the “real” reasons that some people had to go. 

With decent severance pay, the exit process can be managed compassionately and smoothly. In fact, in one cited example the company actually gained productivity during downsizing. It can be done, just not easily. 

What is your assessment of how LANL handled its force reduction earlier this year, including the spectrum of the decisions leading to the reduction?

Till next week, 

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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