You Know What You Should Do, But Why Don’t You Do It?

Back in 2000, Stanford business school professor Jeffrey Pfeffer wrote a book called “The Knowing-Doing Gap:How Smart Companies Turn Knowledge into Action.”

An article in Fast Company magazine called “Why Can’t We Get Anything Done?” by Alan M. Webber, list the 16 rules that explain why so little gets done and what you can do about it.

My favourites from the article are:

8. Talk ain’t cheap. It’s expensive — and destructive.

Companies often confuse talking with doing. They think that talking about doing something is the same thing as doing it! That planning is the same as doing. That giving presentations is the same as doing. That making reports is the same as doing. Or even that making a decision to do something is the same as doing it. All of those errors occur with alarming regularity in companies today.

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.

13. Sure, it’s a measurement — but is it important?

Here’s another measurement problem: You can measure the wrong things. General Motors is a perfect example of this; it’s measurement central. GM can tell you about everything having to do with a car’s outcome: how much of every kind of material went into a car’s manufacture, how many defects it has, how many hours of labor went into making it. The company has about 1,000 measures of outcome. But what GM doesn’t have (yet) are process measures. And without process measures, you don’t know where to intervene to change outcomes. Measurement can, in fact, be crucial to achieving the right kinds of action — but you must do the right measurements.

16. Make knowing and doing the same thing.

The challenge for companies — and for individuals inside those companies — is to build a culture of action. The best description of the knowing-doing gap that I’ve ever heard came from a woman in one of my executive programs. She said, “Benchmarking is very popular today — but companies benchmark the wrong thing. They benchmark what other companies do, when they should be benchmarking how those companies think.”

In the retail world, companies benchmark the Men’s Wearhouse. The Men’s Wearhouse pays people on commission. And if employees sell more than $500 at one time, the company pays them a bigger commission. Other companies have adopted that system.

But what other companies don’t do is look at the underlying thinking that drives that system. Founder and CEO George Zimmer had a great insight that is the key to the success of the Men’s Wearhouse. He started with a question: Where is the power in retail? Most people think that the power in retail is in buying the merchandise — that if you want to rise to the top of retail, you need to be in buying. But Zimmer had a blinding grasp of the obvious: You don’t make money when you buy the merchandise — you make money when you sell the merchandise! If you adopt that idea as the basis for how you run your company, what do you do differently? You put more emphasis on store operations. You put more emphasis on training your salespeople. If you look at everything that Zimmer does at the Men’s Wearhouse, you’ll see that it all connects back to one fundamental idea: that in retail, selling is the key to success.

Here’s another example. Southwest Airlines is premised on another blinding grasp of the obvious: People do not pay to sit in the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport. People pay to get from once place to another. It sounds simple, but it’s very hard to get people to have the courage, the wisdom, and the insight to see beyond what everybody else is doing — and to take notice of the obvious, unexamined, and unacted-upon truths.

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.

[Image: Flickr user cameronparkins]