The Knowing-Doing Gap

bicycle.gifIf knowing “HOW” to do something were enough we’d all be rich and thin. There’s always some reason why well-intentioned, educated, experienced professionals are doing the opposite of what they know makes sense. Frequently it’s because they are really busy, and can’t possibly do what needs to be done until someone ELSE changes first, usually their boss, or someone in a different department. “If only” someone or something else would change then THEY would be able to do what they need to do to accomplish the goals. A whole book on “The Knowing-Doing Gap” was written on this by two professors of Stanford University when they realized that their colleagues at the Stanford Business School didn’t follow the principles that they taught when they themselves were leading companies. It happens in project teams, too. If you want an example of the knowing-doing gap in projects, just consider that the top reason that teams fail is for lack of clear goals. What could possibly be more important for a project manager than clarifying goals and communicating them to the team?

Alas, common sense is NOT common practice. What is the source of the Knowing-Doing Gap?

FAIL – The 4 legs on the stool causing the knowing-doing gap and preventing people from crossing it are:

  • Fear of Failure – If you’re not allowed to fail you must be careful what you start!
  • Aversion to Planning – Studies have proven that, given a choice, people prefer not to plan. At the same time, we also know that planning dramatically improves results.
  • Instinct for Competition – The win-lose frame is the first assumption for many people in any situation involving another person. Fear of losing, tied into #1, prevents people from even playing the game.
  • Learned Helplessness – “It’s not my fault!”, and “They are doing it to me” thinking. The research on this is absolutely shocking.

The difference between someone occupying a project leadership position and a professional project leader is that the pros do what is required whether they feel like it or not, whether they think they have time or not – no excuses! Winston Churchill is one of my favorite leadership role models and he said “Sometimes doing your best is not enough. Sometimes you must do what is required!” Yeah, that’s right, Winston.

Your thoughts? I’ll write more about how to cross the knowing-doing gap later this week, but I’d love to hear your comments!


2 thoughts on “The Knowing-Doing Gap”

  1. User Avatar

    The only people who don’t get caught up in the “smart talk trap” and “knowing-doing gap” are mimes and deaf mutes–the rest of us all seem guilty at one time or another.

    The three big lessons, from Jeff Pfeffer and Bob Sutton in their insightful book, are:

    1. Philosophy matters–general beliefs guide action across a range of situations
    2. If you know by doing, there is no gap between what you know and what you do
    3. There is no doing without mistakes, setbacks, and dead ends

    The five causes of the knowing-doing gap are:

    1. Talk substitutes for action
    2. Memory substitutes for thinking
    3. Fear prevents acting on knowledge
    4. Measurement obstructs good judgment
    5. Internal competition turns friends into enemies

    Dialogue around these lessons and causes is a great start to uncovering ways to blast through the gaps and make a difference by doing something.

    Randy Englund,

  2. User Avatar

    My behavioral “comfort zone” includes a huge dose of the analytical. So, on many levels, I can tend to live “in my head” with lots of book-learned concepts.

    On the other hand, I grew up helping my mom and dad run a small business, so I got a chance to do things from an early age.

    As a project manager, I find myself doing things based a lot on things I did early on. My formal education layers on some technique, but I feel that there’s a lot of veneer.

    So, go out there and do stuff.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top