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The Knowing-Doing Gap

May 5, 2021
8 minute read

The knowing-doing gap: for many people, knowing that they should do something is not easily translated into action. There is a gap. For example, everyone (nearly) knows how to eat healthy, but many people nevertheless eat poorly. Everyone knows that exercise is important, but many people fail to exercise. In the corporate environment, everyone knows that mutual respect is important, yet often we fail to respect those with whom we disagree or those who have slighted us in some way. In the corporate world, we know that having a good work-life balance is important, yet we often work overtime or fail to take vacations. This common discrepancy between what we know and what we do is known as the “knowing-doing gap” and was described in a book by Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert I Sutton (The Knowing-Doing Gap: How Smart Companies Turn Knowledge into Action).

The authors present some ideas about this gap, but actually, the gap and the process of overcoming it was described nearly a century ago by a Persian philosopher and religious leader Abdu’l-Baha: “The attainment of any object is conditioned upon knowledge, volition and action. Unless these three conditions are forthcoming there is no execution or accomplishment.” (p100, Foundations of World Unity). The key, therefore, to overcoming the knowing-doing gap is “volition”.

What is Volition?

Volition is motivation. It is the will to act. It is the mental and emotional energy that switches us from thinking about something to doing something.

As an Agile coach, you need to learn how to create volition in your clients without forcing them to do things they don’t want to do. Much of this book, the “patterns” are related to creating volition. Here are some high-level ideas that will put all the patterns in context. As you read the patterns, I recommend you have this list of ideas copied onto a separate page so that you can connect these ideas to the patterns.

Here are ten ideas for creating volition:

1. Knowledge of the Gap

Remember that a person needs to know that a gap even exists. Although often people already do know about the gap, nevertheless, reminders and assurances can help. For some rare people, knowing is enough to take action. This is particularly true if the knowing comes from their own discovery rather than from someone else telling. A “current/future state” or “gap analysis” workshop exercise can help people see the gap.

2. Encouragement

Encouragement can help a person to gain interest or even courage in doing something to cross a gap. Encouragement can be direct, such as a friendly “you can do it!” or indirect such as recognizing a skill or attribute that someone has that will help them cross the gap. Encouragement always requires communication. As well, it is critical to avoid stepping across a line to manipulation. The use of guilt to try to motivate someone is never encouragement!

The starting point of any kind of encouragement is permission. You have to make sure that people know they have permission to cross the knowing-doing gap. In corporate environments, people often assume they do not have permission! As a coach, you can help get this foundation of encouragement in place simply by stating that a team or a person does, indeed, have permission to cross the gap.

3. Empowerment

Empowering an individual to cross a gap is the process of creating an environment in which that person is able to choose on their own to act. Sometimes we confuse empowerment with something less: encouragement and/or permission. Actually, empowerment is much more difficult: removing obstacles. Choosing to act requires trust that the environment will not create insurmountable obstacles. If you are trying to empower someone or a group of people, then removing any obstacles they identify is the key to empowerment.

You can help, first and foremost, by reducing and eliminating the obstacles of cognitive bias and prejudice. This is long-term work, but even getting started helps. You start with yourself, and once you make a bit of progress, you start helping others.

4. Rewards

In certain circumstances, people will gain the will to act because they are aware that there is a reward for that action. Of course, rewards can be intrinsic, related to the action itself, or extrinsic, provided separately from the action. If the task of crossing the gap requires creativity or problem-solving, be careful not to impose if-then extrinsic rewards in an attempt to motivate someone (see “Drive” by Daniel Pink for more information about this). Instead, for this type of knowledge work, emphasize the intrinsic rewards: learning, purpose and/or self-direction.

A further cautionary note: rewards are extremely tricky to do right. The best rewards are unexpected, proportionate, personalized, and in an Agile context, not related to any form of competition among individuals or groups.

5. Setting an Example

Going first is scary. Not everyone wants to be a trail-blazer, nor can everyone do a thing without seeing someone else do it first. Therefore, sometimes the most effective way to bridge the knowing-doing gap is to have an example to follow. If you can say “watch me!” to others who need to cross the gap, this can be a powerful motivator and enabler. Some people are inspired by others’ good example and some people are challenged by their own competitive nature to do what others can do.

6. Accompaniment

A person struggling to leap over the knowing-doing gap may simply need someone to leap with them. This is accompaniment. Work together with others and those people can subtly reinforce each other. This can sometimes be perceived negatively as groupthink or peer pressure, but in many instances is simply the positive power of unity. The words “let’s work together on this”, when sincerely said, can be one of the easiest ways to overcome a fear of crossing a gap.

This is best done if all the people involved are overcoming the gap together, rather than some people already on the other side of the gap. Learning and struggling together are key for this approach.

7. Divide and Conquer

Sometimes a large gap can be broken up into smaller gaps, each of which is easier to cross. Each small gap that is crossed becomes a success and an encouragement to further action in its own right. These small successes gradually allow a person or group to build momentum and start leaping over larger gaps. Not every problem can be dealt with in this way, but, particularly at the start of any work on bridging a gap, this can be a powerful technique. In fact, it is the foundation of a popular book called “Tiny Habits” by BJ Fogg, PhD.

As a coach, you will often help your clients keep their desired end state in mind. Leaping over a large gap, only to find you aren’t where you want to be, can be disappointing.

8. Inspiration

Many people have become apathetic or cynical, but providing a transcendent purpose – a purpose outside themselves – people can still become inspired to act in ways that they wouldn’t otherwise. Having a vision of making a difference, helping others, creating joy or satisfaction is a critical component of inspiration. As well, connecting with a person’s reality – their skills and abilities and cares – is necessary for true inspiration. Inspiration is not required for every problem, but for big problems, this may be just the approach needed!

Inspiration is often best triggered with excellent story-telling. Stories don’t have to be truthful to be inspiring… but if you tell a fictional story to inspire, you need people to know that it is fictional.

9. Practice Run

Sometimes it is possible to do a test or practice run of an action and build willingness to do “the real thing” from that practice. In creating a practice run environment, two considerations need to be held in mind: emotional safety and opportunity to develop mastery. Emotional safety is accomplished by disconnecting the action from any negative consequences that a person may fear. And mastery is developed by making the practice run as close to the real thing as possible. These two considerations therefore have a mutual tension and it may require several slightly different practice runs to move from perfectly safe to perfect mastery before attempting the real thing.

10. What, not How

Some people actually already have the volition to act, but may not act because they have been de-motivated by others. This can happen particularly if a person has practical skill and expertise to act already, but then is told by others how to act without consideration of that person’s experience. This lack of trust and lack of autonomy can be profoundly de-motivating for many people. To bring back the opportunity for autonomous action, a person needs to be given the “what”, the goal and purpose, but left free to determine the “how”.

The “Meta” Knowing-Doing-Gap

As a coach and consultant, I have had opportunity to try using all of these approaches to helping people individually and in groups to gain the volition to take action. No one technique works in all circumstances. Practicing them yourself may even require someone else helping you to cross the knowing-doing gap; the “meta-knowing-doing-gap”. This is, after all, just a book with some tidbits of knowledge. Will you cross the knowing-doing gap and use the techniques in this book? Or do you need someone else to help you?

Berteig Consulting

Empower Your Entire Organization with BERTEIG Consulting in Agile, Scrum, Kanban, SAFe and LEAN.

Bruce Power
Capital One
Equitable Life of Canada