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Close the Gap Between Knowing & Doing

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There’s a chance you’ve stood here before: pledging to yourself that this year things will be different. You’ll implement those best practices you’ve read in business books or heard at trade show seminars. You’ll get 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 that will not only ensure your financial future but showcase your business acumen. Only, the odds suggest it’s not going to happen. Research suggests you’ve got about a 30 percent chance of succeeding in implementing such change. It’s more likely that in 365 days you’ll find yourself about where you are now, doing things much the same way as you always have. Let’s change that, shall we?

The inability of most businesses to implement change effectively — 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 managers do and what corporate best practices and management science say they should 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.

Behind the seductive lure of “New Year, New You, New Business” often lies a misunderstanding: the idea that what we require, in order finally to change, is one last push of effort or willpower.

The assumption is that your business is like a heavy rock poised on a hill above the Valley of Productivity, Profitability and Success. All you need is a concerted push to get the thing rolling. But the real reason that transformation is hard — as Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey make clear in their book Immunity to Change — is that people and organizations have powerful “competing commitments” or reasons not to change.

To blame lack of effort to explain why your staff is unwilling to implement your new sales practices, to chase new markets, or embrace new technology, is to neglect the fact that those habits are what underpin their feelings of competence or distract them from issues they’d rather not address. As with the rock, there are countervailing forces that keep it stuck, beyond the mere absence of an impetus to move.

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To be sure, change is hard. It’s difficult to get other people, meaning 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 Dec. 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, 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; 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.

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In the pages that follow, we will provide a few 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.

18 tips on closing the knowing-doing gap

1. Get 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, implementing the rules, 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. 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.

3. 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 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.

4. Be Outright Negative

Postmortems are useful, but even better is if you can take action before the “patient” — 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 premortem operates on the assumption that it’s already over. You’re screwed. Everything went as badly as you could have feared. Now: Why? Asking the question this way, explains the psychologist Gary Klein, who came up with the concept, 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, suggesting that using prospective hindsight can improve people’s ability to predict the reasons for future outcomes by 30 percent. At the very least it should help you come up with a good contingency plan.

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5. 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 found that participants thought of an idea every two minutes on average, a much higher rate than more traditional brainstorming sessions.

6. 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.

7. 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 the plan be followed even more closely with ever greater micromanaging. The results were rarely pretty. The problem, of course, is that no Gantt chart survives contact with reality. 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 a Bain & Co. partner and coauthor of Time, Talent, Energy: Unleash Your Team’s Productive Power.

8. 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. Saying yes to too many things is the telltale sign of a poor 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.

9. A WIG is not a BHAG

One of the standard invocations of business planning is to set “big hairy audacious goals,” also known as BHAGs, that will be achieved sometime in your lifetime. But there’s probably no easier way to sabotage your efforts to get something done than to think of it as a “long-term” goal, which implies it’s going to be tricky and time-consuming. Yes, 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 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.

10. Be Clear about Everyone’s Role and Place

Gary Neilson, a consultant with Strategy&, which over the last decade has surveyed more than 1,000 companies for a strategy study, says failures can almost always be fixed by ensuring that employees fully 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.

11. Don’t Substitute Talk for Action

Many corporate teams spend so much time creating strategies and setting goals, they don’t actually implement anything. Systems can help. One popular system goes by the name “No Zero Days”: The idea is simply not to let a single day pass without doing something, however tiny, toward some important project.

12. Keep a Compelling Scoreboard

People play differently when keeping score. “Great teams know, at every moment, whether or not they’re winning. They must know, otherwise, they don’t know what they have to do to win the game, say McChesney, Huling and Covey in 4 Disciplines. The four characteristics of a well-designed scoreboard are that it be simple, easily visible by everyone, show lead and lag measures, and allow employees to tell within five seconds whether they’re winning or losing, they say.

13. Six-Week Sprints

This “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 Bailey, who recommends six-week stretches. Business consultants 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.

14. Praise More

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.

15. Use Fear Judiciously

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 counterproductive. Stanford’s Pfeffer and Sutton suggest that 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.

16. Take Care of the High and 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.
“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. This is not an easy process, but it is a relatively straightforward,” Neilson 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.

17. Deal with Dissent

5 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 in 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.

18. 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 we 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 your stride and appreciate the journey as much as the destination.

Chris Burslem is the group managing editor of SmartWork Media.

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