Mind the Knowing–Doing Gap

May 11, 2017

Mind the Knowing–Doing Gap

Having just returned from London, the ubiquitous “mind the gap message in the Underground is hard to forget. It is everywhere there, and the more I heard it, the more it seemed to pertain to many parts of our lives, not just disembarking from a train.

There appear to be more gaps than ever these days, and for HR professionals, one that is particularly haunting is the distinction first made by Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert Sutton in their book such a gap and wondered, “Why do we know so much, yet can’t turn this knowledge into better practices?” Why are we smarter now, but not working better?  

Their book focuses on turning knowledge into action and suggests that execution is just as important—if not more so—to organizational success than knowledge creation. Ram Charan and Larry Bossidy are also strong advocates for the discipline of getting things done; and Stephen Covey echoes this perspective by saying that we don’t need organizations with more IQ, but rather greater XQ (execution quotient).  This is clearly true when we consider that only about 30 percent of change initiatives successfully meet their objectives. It is more than likely that these failed projects had high aspirations and strong plans, but lost their way in the maze of poor implementation.

This becomes HR’s problem as we are expected to implement strategy, cope with turbulence, orchestrate the people of the organization, and get things done. Our job as business leaders is to make order out of ambiguity, or even chaos. This work is extremely detailed, often messy, and usually very time-consuming. But execution is essential to driving business results, being a force-multiplier and a lead-time ahead (Forman, 2015). The good news is that there is a growing body of new research and best practices that can guide efforts to improve execution, narrow the Knowing-Doing gap, and foster needed change.

There are, I think, two overarching factors that have caused a large percentage of the failed projects, missed opportunities, and expansion—not contraction-- of the Knowing-Doing gap. While these factors have been included in the abundant change management literature, they haven’t been front and center until lately. There is a newfound and growing appreciation for the soft sides of change and the emotional anchors that must be addressed before any progress can be expected.  

1. We over intellectualize change. We think we can figure it out, but it is largely an emotional response and reaction that is intensely human. As William Bridges observed many years ago, “before organizations can transform, people must transition;” and the people transitions are usually slower, more difficult, fraught with emotion, and demanding. John Kotter recognized this truth in “The Heart of Change” (1998) when he noted that “see, feel” experiences are more significant motivators than “analyze, think” evidence. More recently the Heath brothers in “Switch” (2010) state that 80% of change is about Motivating the Elephant that is our emotional selves.

But despite the evidence, we still focus on the technical aspects of change and not the primacy of feelings, emotions and affect. Perhaps this is because the intellectual challenge is seemingly more interesting than trying to sort through messy emotional factors. While it is certainly useful to think through change, rational insights are simply not enough. The emotional aspects of change are the key to improving execution and the abysmal 30% record of success. Remember we are asking people to move away from the familiar, do something different, possibly accept a new role, and embrace uncertainty—all very unsettling activities.

2. Our messaging is incomplete, backwards, and ineffectual, missing the why behind the what. A very familiar refrain in the midst of implementing a new initiative is, “Why aren’t people doing what we want them to do?” The problem is that management’s rationale for change often makes perfect sense to management, but not to employees. Management’s rationale does not frequently translate well to the rest of the organization.

Enter John Kotter with some guidance for improving acceptance. In his 8 step model, he states that 50 percent of change initiatives fail right away because there is no sense of urgency for each major audience. The status quo must be seen as absolutely unacceptable to employees (not management) for them to embark on this uncertain journey. And this is where the why behind the what comes in. If messaging just focuses on what to do, it will fail. It must address the reasons—or the why—the change must occur for that audience. The "why” will differ for different audiences; and the reasons must be very compelling, not just a token or incidental benefit. It must be, in Kotter’s words, a true burning platform for each major audience. In many ways, Kotter is arguing for a targeted marketing and communications campaign for key stakeholder and audience groups.

Enter Simon Sinek for more elucidation and further insight into why poor messaging and lack of rationale causes initiatives to fail. In his insightful book, Start with Why (2009), he makes the distinction between inspiring people and trying to manipulate them; and with inspiration comes greater application and execution. He says, “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.” He then proposes a simple but powerful model: The Golden Circle. His message: start with why, then detail how to describe the journey and finally identify what is expected. This, in many cases, is exactly opposite of the way that most change initiatives are communicated.

Simon Sinek, 2009

Sinek then maps his model to different parts of the brain. The what and how are processed in the Neocortex and are part of rational thought, while the Limbic brain, focused on feelings and making decisions, attends to the why. Because of this mapping he advocates communicating from the inside out, not the more usual outside in messaging.

These two overarching insights (over intellectualizing change and incomplete messaging) are closely related. By focusing more on the emotional aspects of change and using the Golden Circle to adjust communication and messaging to address this domain, we can narrow the Knowing–Doing map, reduce the waste from failed initiatives, and move our organizations forward. We still have to mind the gap, but now we can begin to close it more effectively

The Authors: 

David Forman is president of Sage Learning Systems and former chief learning officer at the Human Capital Institute. The courses he has developed and taught for HCI have been taken by thousands of HR professionals around the world. Dave has spent more than 25 years in the training industry, working with large global organizations to improve the knowledge, skills, and performance of their people. Major clients include FedEx, IBM, DuPont, Microsoft, SAP, American Express, PwC, Ford, Prudential, Apple, Scripps Healthcare, and Allstate. He has written more than 40 articles on talent management, analytics, strategic human resources, learning systems, high-performance cultures, and leadership. He has also spoken at a variety of national and global tale and leadership conferences. David is the author of Fearless HR: Driving Business Results. He can be reached at dforman1@cox.net.