Higher Human Performance Short Course

On Becoming A (Better) Learning Executive

the-knowing-doing-gapIn late 1999 a couple of my favorite “academic” authors – Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert I. Sutton – (both guys are professors at Stanford) published a book entitled, The Knowing-Doing Gap: How Smart Companies Turn Knowledge into Action. The title became a big part of my management philosophy because it resonated with a message I had been preaching since the 1980s, “How good could we be if we just did the things we know are right?” My teams had heard that kind of evangelism for a long time. I just wasn’t smart enough to distill it like these brainiacs from Stanford.

You can read the book if you’ve not done so yet. Or, you can just look at this fully illustrated infographic that sums up the book. Just click on the illustration.Knowing-Doing-Gap-Infographic

What matters is what happens every day!

The pace of change in today’s is without prior precedent. The sheer volume of information is staggering. According to a Tech Crunch post dated August 4, 2010, Eric Schmidt, the CEO of Google, declared an amazing “fact.” Every 2 days we now create as much information as we did from the dawn of civilization up until 2003. That’s something like 5 exabytes of data, according to Schmidt. He’s smarter than me because I don’t even know what an exabyte is!

Fast forward almost a full decade and today IBM estimates that this year human knowledge will double every 12 hours. Remarkable. Especially given that Buckminister Fuller, the futurist, and inventor, estimated that until 1900 human knowledge doubled every century. By 1945 it was doubling every 25 years. By 1982 it was doubling every year or so. Marc Rosenburg called it a “knowledge tsunami” in 2017. Well, we’re experiencing it today.

I’ll bet you didn’t know those “facts,” but I know you’re feeling it. Data overload. Info gorging. Call it whatever you want, but all of us experience what many liken to “drinking from a fire hose.” We’re sometimes just overwhelmed with all the stuff coming at us and the stuff we have to keep up with. And manage.

At this rate, it’s not surprising that the things we knew yesterday – you remember those things – the things that once worked, but stopped working leave us puzzled thinking, “What happened?” Of course, the Internet changed everything. So if you’re a leader who can’t remember the pre-Internet world then you’re struggling to keep up like the rest of us, but you may not have quite the same fight to learn some new tricks. You just have to concentrate on learning newer tricks. Those of us who remember the pre-Internet world (and we remember when we thought faxing was cool technology), well, our row to hoe is tougher.

Most of the executives I serve are extremely bright, capable and adaptive people. Even smart folks get stuck every now and again. What’s most perplexing to me is a person’s willingness to surrender or to give up on learning because the pace seems daunting. That’s why I like to start with Pfeffer and Sutton’s book. You can’t give up on learning.

Let’s Start With Doing The Things We Already Know (A Simple, But Maybe Not-So-Easy Exercise)

For the moment, don’t focus on learning something you don’t yet know. Focus on what you already know you should be doing, but for whatever reason, you’re not doing it. Take some time and complete this exercise.

First, think about yourself. Consider your own work and your own leadership.

Make a list of 3 things that fit the bill. List three things (big or small, it doesn’t matter) that you know with certainty are things you should be doing, but you’re failing to do them. These might be things you do sometimes, but not as regularly as you should. They might be things you completely neglect. Excuses or reasons why you’re failing aren’t important. Nobody cares about excuses. You need to stop caring about them, too.

These should be things that require no learning curve. You already know these things and you already know the first step required to take action in each of them. Write down these 3 things. Comment as much, or as little, as you’d like about each one.

Next, think about your people – your team.

Don’t get bogged down considering what they’re failing to do that you “think” they know. Focus on the things you’re certain they know to do. Hint: You’ll know they can do these things because they’ve successfully done them before. You’ve seen it…so there’s no doubt they can. These will likely be different for each of your direct reports since they’ve all got different roles and responsibilities.

Write down their names and then under their names list 3 things they know to do, but are failing to do. Again, these can be large or small. Just make certain these aren’t things you think they know. They must be things you’re certain they know. No, we don’t care about their excuses or reasons either. And don’t get sidetracked with those because they don’t matter.

Now, begin with yourself. Start doing those 3 things you know you should be doing.

It starts with you. Step up and lead the way by making a habit of doing the things you already know to do. If you don’t begin the habit of incorporating what you already know, what makes you think new knowledge will do you any good?

Then, begin to help your direct reports make a habit of doing the 3 things they’re currently neglecting.

No excuses. No beating people up over the past. Just start today — doing those things each person knows they should be doing.

Close the knowing-doing gap and you’ll make some instant progress in elevating your own performance and the performance of your team.


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Grow Great a public sector leadership podcastAbout the hosts: Randy Cantrell brings over 4 decades of experience as a business leader and organization builder. Lisa Norris brings almost 3 decades of experience in HR and all things "people." Their shared passion for leadership and developing high-performing cultures provoked them to focus the Grow Great podcast on city government leadership.

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