There’s a chance you’ve stood here before: on the cusp of a new year, pledging to yourself that this time, things will be different. You’ll implement those best practices you’ve read in business books or heard at trade show seminars. You’ll knock your inventory into shape, bring your marketing up to date and fire up your staff. Come the end of 2020, you’ll be sitting atop a thriving business practice that will not only ensure your future is financially secure but showcase your business acumen. Only the odds suggest it’s not going to happen. Numerous surveys done over the last three decades suggest that at best you’ve got about a 30 percent chance of succeeding in implementing such change. It’s more likely that in a year, you’ll find yourself pretty much where you are now, doing things much the same way as you always have.
The inability of most businesses to effectively implement change — even when they know what needs to be done — is one of the more curious and frustrating aspects of business management. Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert Sutton, two Stanford Graduate School of Business professors, famously coined the term “the knowing-doing gap” to encapsulate the divergence between what corporate best practices and management science say managers should do, and what they actually do.
The knowing-doing gap afflicts businesses of all sizes and in all sectors. And despite increasing awareness of the issue, companies are getting no better at closing it.
Some businesses mistake talk for action; they perfect their plans and presentations, yet follow-up is feeble. Still other businesses get locked in the past, sometimes because their identities are too strong to adapt. A great many workplaces are cowed by an intolerance of mistakes that discourages feedback and paralyzes initiative. Conversely, some organizations are just too comfortable, creating a situation that no one genuinely wants to disrupt.
Many, if not most, enterprises rely on faulty yardsticks of performance, favoring financial benchmarks that are easy to track but that do not truly capture the drivers of transformation.
One thing that can torpedo even the best-laid plan is the unknowability of the future. As Mike Tyson succinctly put it, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” It’s impossible to know what lies ahead. Markets, staff, and customers don’t react the way you expect, and most change programs lack the agility to deal with the unexpected chain of events that may be set in motion.
To be sure, change is hard. It’s difficult to get other people, like your staff, to do what you want. It’s often as tough to get yourself to follow through on a commitment you’ve made on December 31. But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible.
Hollywood movies are often about change and redemption, and often the trigger is a rousing speech by a dying uncle, wounded comrade, or aging sports star. In the real world, influencing people’s behaviors requires a lot more than words. You need to make what is often perceived as undesirable desirable, you need to harness team spirit, and you need to offer rewards and make it structurally easy for the person to carry out the changes through routines and skills training. You need to hold people accountable to the new ways on a day-to-day basis, and you need to be prepared to pivot and change approaches when something is not working. Finally, you need to be ready to communicate your message over and over again.
In the pages that follow, we will provide tips and ideas to set you in motion on your year of change. There’s a good chance you will know many of them. That’s the thing about the knowing-doing gap. The secret is to invest in as many as possible, celebrate any progress that you make and keep moving forward.
22 Tips to Close the Knowing-doing Gap
1. Get Staff Buy-in
To succeed, a change strategy must, at least in part, be shaped by the people who will execute it. They are the ones doing the work, so they need to be involved from the beginning. Moreover, they are best positioned to codify experience into usable rules, which they can phrase in a language that resonates for them (creating such in-house terminology is often one of the first steps in building a successful company culture). And besides, they may actually have some good ideas to share. “Often the best strategies don’t come from the top of the organization. The frontline can be a well of ideas. New ideas pop up from the pressure of trying to solve a problem for the customer,” says Robert Simons, author of Seven Strategy Questions: A Simple Approach For Better Execution.
2. Be a Little LESS Positive
Positive thinking has its place, especially when it comes to conceiving goals, but when it comes to achieving them, it can actually be a hindrance, says Dr. Gabriele Oettigen, a New York University psychology professor who has been studying the effects of positive thinking for over 20 years. “When people only think about a positive future, they’ve already attained this future in their minds, so they have little motivation to actually act on it,” Oettigen recently told The Atlantic. In her book, Rethinking Positive Thinking, she recommends a procedure called mental contrasting — that is, examine the barriers that stand in the way of us actually attaining that goal and map out detailed strategies to deal with them. “Visualizing the desired future and then imagining the obstacles can actually help us be more successful than positive thinking alone,” she says.
3. Be Outright Negative
Postmortems are useful, but even better is if you can take action before your dear project dies. Hence, the increasing popularity of pre-mortems. The process is simple: Unlike a typical critiquing session, in which project team members are asked what might go wrong, the pre-mortem operates on the assumption that it’s already over. Everything went as badly as you could have feared. Now: why? Asking the question this way, explains the psychologist Gary Klein, has an almost magical effect. It removes the pressure from those who are worried about seeming disloyal by voicing concerns; indeed, it turns things into a competition to find ever more convincing reasons for failure. “It’s a sneaky way to get people to do contrarian, devil’s-advocate thinking without encountering resistance,” Klein says. According to Klein, using prospective hindsight can improve people’s ability to predict the reasons for future outcomes by 30 percent.
4. Put Staff’s Skin in the Game
There’s another reason you want to involve your staff: When people feel the ideas were partly theirs, they have skin in the game and feel accountable for the plan’s success. It wasn’t just the boss’s idea. “People do not change their minds through being told, however open and inclusive the communication may be. It is an oft-forgotten feature of human nature that if you want to influence someone, a good start is to show they have influenced you. If you are open to others, others tend to be open to you. Influence comes through interaction,” write Alison Reynolds and David Lewis in What Philosophy Can Teach You About Being A Better Leader.
5. Identify Your WIGs
To win any war, you need to pick the right battles. In their book The 4 Disciplines Of Execution, Chris McChesney, Jim Huling and Sean Covey call these targets “WIGs”, short for Wildly Important Goals. A WIG can make all the difference, but will require you to commit a disproportionate amount of energy to it. “In determining your WIG, don’t ask ‘What’s most important?’ Instead, begin by asking ‘If every other area of our operation remained at its current level of performance, what is the one area where change would have the greatest impact?’” they write.
The truth is that it is hard to do more than two or three big things at a time, no matter how large your organization. “Saying no to things that you really want to do is the telltale sign of a good planning process,” the investor Fred Wilson recently told a recent INC founder conference.
The final benefit of a WIG is clarity. According to some studies, only 15 percent of employees at corporations actually know their organization’s most important goals — either because there are no goals, or they have too many goals. A WIG will ensure everyone is clear on what critical activities provide the greatest leverage to achieving that goal.
6. Play Planning Poker
One of the main drivers of resistance to a change program is when staff don’t feel they have been heard or the amount of additional work they may be asked to do is not acknowledged. A fun way to show you’re interested in your employees’ perspectives is Planning Poker. It goes like this: Each staff member gets a set of numbered cards and the manager describes the new task or role they will be asked to do under Program Revamp. The employees then choose the numbered card that represents the amount of effort that they believe will be required to achieve the outcome. As the cards are revealed — some with high values, others with lower values — it quickly becomes apparent who’s not on the same page. “Planning Poker sparks productive discussion and speeds up clarification of what’s expected,” says Dave Bailey, a business coach and tech entrepreneur.
7. Create Small Steps
Set big, ambitious goals. Just be sure to add deadlines for the small concrete steps that will get you there. In his book One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way, Robert Maurer suggests taking almost absurdly tiny steps, day after day. It enables you, in Maurer’s words, to “tiptoe past fear”: our monkey-brain, it seems, is fooled when we tell it we’re embarking only on something minuscule, and it stops putting up resistance. By making your steps too small to fail, you and your staff can make those initial, small changes on which to build a new way of working and doing business.
8. Be Clear About Everyone’s Role and Place
Gary Neilson, a consultant with Booz & Co., which over the last decade has surveyed over 1,000 companies for a strategy study, says failures can almost always be fixed by ensuring that employees truly understand what they are responsible for and who makes which decisions — and then giving them the information they need to fulfill their responsibilities. With these two building blocks in place, structural and motivational elements will follow.
9. Six-Week Sprints
“Agile planning” should be viewed as a series of box sprints with the objective of moving forward, testing the waters, learning, and refining the strategy based on the results, says business coach Dave Bailey, who recommends six-week stretches. Brian Moran and Michael Lennington, authors of the 12-Week Year, recommend a longer period, as the title of their book suggests. The exact number isn’t important, just so long as the stretch is long enough to allow your team to make significant progress on a key front, yet short enough to stay focused. The problem with thinking of life in annualized 365-day units is that a year’s too big to get your head around, Moran and Lennington argue, and there’s too much unpredictability involved in planning for 10 or 11 months in the future.
10. Try a Brainwriting Session
Traditional brainstorming sessions have a rather spotty record. This is because only one person can speak at any one time and it is easy for some personalities — and their ideas — to dominate, so few good ideas are actually generated. A new study suggests something called “asynchronous brainwriting,” whereby participants rotate between eight-minute individual writing sessions and three-minute group sessions to read over each other’s ideas. The researchers from the University of Texas at Arlington found that participants using this method thought of an idea every two minutes on average, a much higher rate than more traditional brainstorming sessions.
11. Use the Right Metrics
How should you measure progress toward your goal? According to Pfeffer and Sutton, companies with huge knowing-doing gaps tend to measure things that don’t really matter, such as hours worked, rather than overall customer satisfaction. Or lag indicators rather than lead measures. It’s the data on lead measures (for example, number of phone calls or mystery shopper scores if your goal is greater customer intimacy) that enables you to close the gap between what you know your team should do and what they are actually doing.
It’s also important not to overemphasize traditional performance such as sales, which can impair execution in another subtle but important way, says Donald Sull of the MIT Sloan School of Management. “If managers believe that hitting their numbers trumps all else, they tend to make conservative performance commitments.” Trying new things inevitably entails setbacks, and honestly discussing the challenges involved increases the odds of long-term success.
12. Don’t Substitute Talk For Action
Substituting talk for action is perhaps the most common way businesses fall into the knowing-doing gap, say Pfeffer and Sutton. Many corporate teams spend so much time creating strategies and setting goals, they don’t actually implement anything. Systems can help. One system that’s currently popular online goes by the name “No Zero Days.” The idea is simply not to let a single day pass without doing something, however tiny, towards some important project.
13. Enough Talking Already… Launch!
To overcome resistance, launch new initiatives with a lot of hoopla, following through immediately to sustain momentum, and singling out those doing good work for compliments (in addition to raising morale, it sends a message that management is watching closely.)
14. Keep a Compelling Scoreboard
People play differently when keeping score. “Great teams know, at every moment, whether or not they’re winning,” say McChesney, Huling and Covey in The 4 Disciplines of Execution.
15. Praise More
Most of us have our favorite method of trying to influence people’s behavior: pass a law, threaten a consequence, offer a training program. But it’s too simplistic. It takes a combination of personal, social and structural influences to get people to change. The first thing that needs to be done is to ensure that vital behaviors are connected to intrinsic satisfaction, such as associating what we’re doing with a sense of greater purpose (“These are our customers’ most important moments”). The second is the social environment, such as making people accountable to the team, and finally come the rewards, such as bonuses. A big part in all of this is feedback. Many managers act as if praise is a finite resource. It’s not and lack of recognition is usually the No. 1 complaint among staff.
16. Use Fear Judiciously
There’s a good chance that your desire for change is linked to the disruption going on in the marketplace, and few industries are being “disrupted” as drastically as the retail industry. Andy Grove, the former Intel chairman, liked to say that fear — fear of the competitor, fear of failure — was essential to fueling a desire to win in the marketplace. But fear is often counter-productive. In business, Pfeffer and Sutton report, managers who try to lead through fear cause paralysis more often than action. And trying to motivate yourself with fear is like screaming at a child, “Do something, dammit!” You’ll either freeze up or act in an impetuous way that makes things worse.
17. Craft Simple Rules
Ultimately, it’s detailed execution at the employee level, and not strategy, that gets things done. And execution requires rules. Rules set boundaries (as in inventory buying), assign priorities, tell you when to fold (that staffer not paying her way), and “how to” do something (as in, “Every initial interaction with a customer must end in an open-ended question.”) In Simple Rules: How To Thrive In A Complex World, Donald Sull and Kathleen Eisenhardt make the case for — as the title of their book indicates — keeping it simple. There’s just too much information in the world for a rule to address every situation. And besides, while specificity may make frontline employees’ jobs easier, too much eliminates their need to think and diminishes their sense of ownership. Most customer-facing situations in business are generic anyway and have a standard solution (or an adaptation of one). They don’t require the intervention of the boss. This has another big benefit — it frees you up to focus on the decisions that are important and move the needle. As for how to devise those Simple Rules, Sull and Eisenhardt have some simple guidelines: Users suggest the rules, data trumps opinion, and give the rules a test drive.
18. Deal with Dissent
It’s possible, and even likely, that some of your frontline employees will voice objections to your strategy. They may think the leaders have chosen the wrong approach or have decided to play in the wrong space. If this happens, listen carefully and sincerely. “Every failed strategy had people on the frontline who expressed concerns,” says Simons. It’s a manager’s job to allow bad news to bubble up to the top of the organization. Simons urges though that once those concerns have been heard and dealt with, then people need to fall into line with the agreed strategy, regardless of their opinion. For those who seem determined to play the game of “Yes, but” (offer a solution, and they’ll find a reason to reject it), the right response is to refuse to play along, because their real motive is to prove the situation is irresolvable. Break the cycle by agreeing sympathetically. Or ask: “What do you plan to do about it?” says the entrepreneur Trevor Blake in his book Three Simple Steps.
19. Take Care of the High & the Low
Humans typically don’t like change. And the two groups most resistant tend to be the lower performers and — surprisingly — high performers, says Neilson. The low performers because they fear they will struggle, and the high performers because they have found a way to succeed in the existing system, so they tend to see the problem as other people needing to get it together and be effective. As a result, change seems like unnecessary overhead that is liable to get in the way of their actual work. “Essentially, low performers need to know the ‘what’—what the expectations are in the new order of things — while high performers need the ‘why’ of the change explained,” Neilson says.
“Before you try to introduce any kind of ‘performance management’ to a team, the first step is to bring in standards, support, and accountability. Once you have that, you can clearly communicate where people need to develop, give low performers the help they need, set them up to be successful, and if it still doesn’t work out … let them go,” he writes in Results: Keep What’s Good, Fix What’s Wrong, And Unlock Great Performance.
For high performers, it will be hard, but it will be extremely effective, so take the time, he counsels. Hone your explanations on them, hear them out, and work to earn their trust. They usually wield outsize influence in the workplace. Once you have their support, other employees will quickly get on board.
20. Aim, Fire, Do
The traditional top-down approach to business strategy has been “Plan-then-Do.” The organization would invest heavily in creating a detailed plan that specified roles for all employees based on how the market was expected to react. Should the plan falter, employees would invariably be faulted for failing to execute, leading to demands that the plan be followed even more closely with ever greater micromanaging. The results were rarely pretty. An alternative approach popularized by Tom Peters and Bob Waterman in their bestseller In Search Of Excellence was a “ready-fire-aim” go-to-market strategy. This agile, test-and-learn approach, which has become the standard in Silicon Valley, is better suited to today’s volatile environment. Instead of thinking of strategy as a linear process, consider it as inherently iterative — a loop instead of a line, in which the situation is constantly reassessed: Plan, do, assess, replan, redo. “Success requires identifying the next few steps along a broadly defined strategic path and then learning and refining as you go. This approach makes execution easier and increases the odds of delivering great results,” says Michael Mankins, co-author of Time, Talent, Energy: Unleash Your Team’s Productive Power.
21. Do Retrospectives
In addition to the daily meetings, it’s important to end the six- or 12-week sprints with retrospectives, which bring together staff to gather answers to three questions:
- What’s working well?
- What’s not working well?
- How can we improve?
Note that retrospectives require psychological safety that may mean cultivating a new set of skills at the top, including empathy and transparency, that build trust. Improve your process every cycle.
22. There is No Finish Line
Lurking behind most schemes for transformation is the unspoken notion that change is something you achieve, once and for all. But it doesn’t work that way because a day when everything is “sorted out” never arrives. If you continuously stare at the gap between where you are and where you think you should be, you’ll exist in a space of debilitating discouragement. Instead, observe and appreciate how far you’ve come. Sure, you aren’t where you want to be, but you aren’t where you were, either. “Treat strategy as evergreen. The best companies see strategy less as a plan and more as a direction and agenda of decisions,” says Michael Mankins in a paper titled “5 Ways the Best Companies Close the Strategy-Execution Gap” in the Harvard Business Review. Focus on getting better rather than being good, and before too long, you might find that you’re actually pretty great. Not only does this encourage you to focus on developing and acquiring new skills, it allows you to take difficulties in stride and appreciate the journey as much as the destination.