The knowing-doing gap: Part 1

Earlier this year a very secret list was discovered in a safe that (almost) nobody knew about. Written on it were 37 names, arranged by levels of indulgence in the betrayal and sexual abuse of children.

William Lynn was a HR manager. He made the list. Right now, following an intensely sad and emotional 10-week-long criminal case, the jury is considering its verdict. He is charged with conspiracy and child endangerment by his actions protecting suspected employees and reassigning them to jobs where they could abuse more children. His defence is that while he knew there was wrong doing, his hands were tied by the rules of the Catholic Church. (For further details see here and here.)

Our resident sceptic Megan pondered comparisons with the Sicilian mafia. She mused about recruiting and induction methods. Yet, of followers and associates, few whose “hands were tied” down in Sicily get to enjoy the work conditions enjoyed over eight years by Lynn. The mafia have killed children but don’t particularly specialise in in pleasurable orgies that betray trust and leave children maimed for life. Both have hard to break codes of silence; and immense pride, honour and righteousness about their chosen professions.

Lynn’s practices are an instance of one of the most illuminating concepts available to leaders – the “knowing-doing gap”. Gaps and analysis of gaps between results and targets abound in business. With the knowing-doing gap we get to the “whys”. The term was first coined in 2000 by Stanford professors Jeffrey Pfeiffer and Robert I Sutton in their HBS book of the same name. The book is about why education, training, consulting and facilitation so often fail to achieve desired change.  The scope of this simple, powerful concept is much broader. It’s a concept that we can put to work in all spheres and at all scales; from our own self-talk through to organisational, industry, institutional, national and international levels.

We only have to scan recent research and literature on (for starters) management, teams, organisational behaviour, organisational performance, business ethics and change management to know that we do know what’s right, what works and what’s best. Early in the 21st century we really do know it all. Radical new knowledge can emerge but 99.9% of “new” management knowledge is an overlay, and even when new and different, it’s mostly a slight improvement on what’s already known (the codified as opposed to the tacit stuff). We may quibble about how well we know, but “very” is a safe generalisation.

Yet time and time again we watch as people fail to apply what we, and purportedly they, know what works. We are not talking innovation here, just efforts to make changes and improvements of the type that others have made successfully many times.

A host of reasons present themselves –human nature; our position on the evolutionary spiral. After all, as we tap our iPhones we forget that less than 200 years ago most people on the plant lived within millimetres of miserable, brutish lives. There were periods of grace but come famine, disease and poverty life turned unimaginably awful. Advances since then have been astronomical. So should we then say that really, our expectations are out of kilter; celebrate the gains and be content? Or should we take the progress as a platform for building better organisational policies and behaviours by closing the knowing-doing gap.   

In Philadelphia the trial jury is asking, and the lawyers and judges are crossing swords over the meanings of conspiracy. Our young resident optimist Potter simply thinks that conspiracy involves any two or more people agreeing (nod, nod, wink, wink) to conceal something from others. It’s about protecting some at the expense of other. Google was concise – “a secret plan by a group to do something unlawful or harmful”.

The Catholic Church is a communitarian movement which has done great good in the world. This case is about its dark side. William Lynn is just one of many employees who knew that he was not doing the right thing, not doing what works for the customer and definitely not doing what is best. He worked diligently in an institutional web of arrogant self-deception and delusion.

Outside of the Catholic Church the knowing-doing gap is far less dramatic; rarely obscene and so barely noticed. Yet it is pervasive, it involves oceans of unconscious, conscious and careless denial, distortion and deletion. The harm to employees and customers is mostly small. But the harm inflicted on productivity and performance is immense. Leaders, supervisors and staff decide to make things better but the decisions never get implemented. Neglected decisions die a slow death.

Megan and resident optimist Potter know that fogs of innocent silence steal through thousands of offices and work places, maiming their real potential. They are scouting for concealed evidence and hidden answers and will deliver their verdict next week.

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