From Knowing and Planning to Doing and Learning: Creating a Shift in Your Organization’s Mindset

If earning a certificate, showing up to a training course, reading a how-to book, or listening to a podcast meant that you and your company could put that know-how into use, then all companies would be able to turn knowledge into action. So why is it that so few actually manage to?

The Gap Between Knowing and Doing

There’s a gap between knowing something and being able to do it. A gap that Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert Sutton call “the knowing-doing gap” in their 1999 book, The Knowing-Doing Gap: How Smart Companies Turn Knowledge into Action. And most organizations just don’t seem to be able to close it. To try to see why, let’s look at the process of knowledge management.

When it comes to knowledge management, most companies I know have either no formalized process in place (especially small and medium-sized ones) or are following a process that few stakeholders find useful (especially large corporations). Why is that? Because more often than not:

First and foremost, knowledge management tends to focus too heavily on the specific techniques (the “What”) rather than on the best practices (the “How”) and the underlying philosophy (the “Why”) for doing the work. In Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action, author Simon Sinek prescribes to leaders to… you guessed it, start with the “Why.” He calls this “the golden circle;” the proper combination and order of Why, How, and What to inspire action.

The old proverb, give a man a fish and he will be hungry again in an hour, but teach him to catch a fish and he will not be hungry again for life, applies. Too often, we treat knowledge transfer as giving to others a fish or two, rather than teaching them how to fish. Which brings us to the second issue with knowledge management. Its return on investment is indirect and difficult to measure. Its effect can’t be traced in the short or mid-term and its impact is usually on the overall capacity of an organization. This reminds me of a great post by Tom Tunguz (Twitter | LinkedIn), venture capitalist at Redpoint Ventures, called Plant Trees You’ll Never See.

Third, the individuals responsible for collecting, storing, and keeping an organization’s knowledge up-to-date don’t really understand the work they are documenting. I call this the knowledge management dilemma. Because few companies are willing to prioritize their best doers’ time for documenting knowledge, at the end of the day their knowledge is left undocumented. Even more so, those who are excellent at doing something are not always good at explaining to others how to do it.

Turning Knowledge into Action

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Okay. So how can you, as an owner, leader, manager, or employee, help your organization to turn knowledge into action? How do we create the culture, know-how, processes, and practices in place to become a team that does things 1% better each day?

Why > How > What

Start with Simon Sinek’s “golden circle” concept. Identify, describe, communicate, and document your company’s Why, How, and What across business functions and job titles. Make it accessible for people on all levels to understand their role in your organization’s philosophy, approach, and way of work.

There’s a good reason why the Toyota Production System was impossible for other car manufacturers to copy, even though Toyota gave tours of its shop floors and Toyota executives wrote books about the Toyota way of work. That is because what visitors saw on the outside—from Kanban cards to quality circles—showed the tip of the iceberg. Below the surface, everyone had understood and adopted the Toyota philosophy. It was because Toyota employees know Why they were building Toyota cars (and what each Toyota car meant) that they were able to figure out the How and What, not the other way round.

Avoid Substitutes for Action

Next, train your organization, team, and employees to take action (and risk). In the business world, there are too many substitutes for action.

  • Decisions can turn into a substitute for action. “Isn’t it great that we decided to take action?”
  • Meetings can turn into a substitute for action. “Let’s meet and discuss how to best take action.”
  • Presentations can turn into a substitute for action. “Look at how exactly we intent to take action.”
  • Planning can turn into a substitute for action. “Let’s consider the possibilities and evaluate all alternatives before we take action.”

Help All Business Units to Adopt Agile as a Way of Work

Act with agility instead. Break down big plans into small actions. Execute them in short and cyclical periods of time. Focus on achieving small results (and learning from them) instead of on creating complex documentation. Measure the impact of your actions rather than plan their outcomes. Document your successes, failures, and lessons learned as you go. Here, the core principles of DevOps—systems thinking, learning through experimentation, and collecting feedback as often as possible—apply. Turn them into a second nature for all your business units, not just your IT department or outsourcing service supplier’s dedicated team.

“I am sure many of us have seen examples where a company’s onboarding process is very ad-hoc and the communication between the teams involved is almost non-existent,” says Matthew Perry (LinkedIn), director of IT Operations at St. Louis-based custom software developer WWT Asynchrony Labs, in an article titled Build a DevOps-Focused Enterprise on InformationWeek. “If we apply the principles of DevOps to this situation, all teams could agree on a timeline for onboarding employees and start to implement automated workflows to accomplish tasks before an employee’s start date,” Perry notes. “This would help make new employees productive on day one and leave them with a good first impression of the company.”

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Innovation Manager at ICB, a software company. Curious about the technology of business and the business of technology.