May 17, 2004
News & Opinion: BOOK REVIEW: The Knowing-Doing Gap
Authors: Jeffrey Pfeffer & Robert I. Sutton
Reviewer: Diego Rodriguez from the metacool blog
As businesspeople, weve all experienced it. You know the right course of action to take, but just cant get things to gel into reality. You come home pumped up from that Tom Peters seminar, but drop a few quantum energy pegs Monday morning when management shoots down your presentation of Toms phat ideas. Or perhaps you dream up a leaner product development process, but the R&D team rejects it on the basis of NIH. So whats going on? Its a knowing-doing gap: people often know the right thing to do, but cannot or will not translate that wisdom into welfare-enhancing action. Bridging knowing-doing gaps is the subject of this fascinating book by Stanford professors Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert Sutton.
Sutton and Pfeffers core idea is that, if you learn by doing, youll never experience a knowing-doing gap. Gaps dont exist when organizations see knowledge as an intangible currency, something which is best gained through experience, and which comes alive through story telling, mentoring, and learning by doing. Sutton and Pfeffer employ a veritable freak show of aberrant organizational behaviors to show us how gaps occur: how inaction comes from valuing slick PowerPoint slides more than concrete results; how performance metrics tend to create worse business outcomes; how long-standing processes and values combine to create powerful cultural disabilities; and how fear-based management as practiced by Andy Grove breeds fear and distrust, stifling innovation by limiting the sharing of information.
This can be a nauseating read, because many of these gap-producing behaviors will hit close to home. But the book is also full of examples of successful firms and the practices they use to shrink, close, or even avoid knowing-doing gaps. For example, Honda makes great cars, due in no small part to a manufacturing culture driven by the philosophy of actual part, actual situation. When a manufacturing flaw is found at Honda, instead of retreating to a cube and filing yet another report on the corporate intranet, the relevant parties instead go and look at the actual car in question. By doing so, they achieve a state of concrete wisdom, and are then able to take effective action. The book draws from a broad range of sources, including 49ers coach Steve Mariucci, who explains how he stamps out inaction by not sporting a watch:
I always know what time it is. It is always NOW. And NOW is when you should do it.
Ultimately, businesses that avoid knowing-doing gaps are more innovative, and their people are happier and more productive. These firms, such as IDEO, favor a common-sense approach to business which values simplicity and concreteness. Theyre willing to fail early to learn and succeed sooner, and with this highly readable book, you can learn to be there, too.
By digesting The Knowing-Doing Gap and putting its lessons to work, youll dramatically increase the value of all the other books you read this year. For example, if your business is struggling to implement ideas from Clay Christensens The Innovators Solution, you owe it to yourself to tap into the wisdom of Pfeffer and Sutton. Its a foundational piece of business thinking, a seminal work in its own right.
Dont be put off by this glowing review. On the subject of talk substituting for action (a common source of knowing-doing gaps), Sutton and Pfeffer refer to Harvard Business School professor Teresa Amabile, whose research shows that a reader is more likely to think highly of a negative book reviewer than a positive one Only pessimism sounds profound. Optimism sounds superficial. So please dont let me get in the way of reading The Knowing Doing Gap. As someone at a big shoe manufacturer once said: Just Do It.
Diego Rodriguez is marketer, engineer, and designer. He has worked with companies ranging from Ferrari to Medtronic to Intel. See more of his thinking on innovation, marketing, and design at metacool
About Dylan Schleicher
Dylan Schleicher has been a part of the 800-CEO-READ claque since 2003. Even though he's stayed on at the company, he has not stayed put. After beginning in shipping & receiving, he joined customer service and accounting before moving into his current, highly elliptical orbit of duties overseeing the ChangeThis and In the Books websites, the company's annual review of books and in-house design. He lives with his wife and two children in the Washington Heights neighborhood on Milwaukee's West Side.