Knowing is not the problem

Organisations are full of intellectually bright executives who have no trouble articulating a good game. Consequentially they produce an endless array of professional looking, well intentioned strategic plans, presentations, action lists, commitment statements and meeting minutes. The problem is that most, if not all, of these well-intentioned initiatives fail to deliver on the majority of what they set out to achieve.

This is known as “The Knowing-Doing Gap” – The difference between what you know needs doing and what actually gets done.

Jeff Pfeffer the renowned Professor of Organisational Behaviour at Stanford Graduate School of Business and co-author of “The Knowing – Doing Gap” states it very clearly:

“If you know by doing, there is no gap between what you know and what you do.”

Working with Executives over many years I have found there to be two constants in any effective learning or transformational experience. The first is the power of discovery and the second is the power of doing. Combined, these approaches have a significant impact in translating new insights into positive action. They are also inextricably linked because to discover you need to do and to do you need to discover.

This has huge implications for anyone involved in Executive Development. Designing interventions that make executives intellectually richer with more content, more concepts, more models, more theories and more plans runs the risk of fuelling the knowing-doing gap. On the other hand if you design interventions that are grounded in real business issues and learning by doing, then the change that is sought will more likely be achieved.

Discovery & Doing

At its heart, discovery is learning from the unorthodox and the unusual, and appreciating there is learning in everything. It is about taking time to “walk in other worlds”, to get your hands dirty, to ask great questions, to let go, to see, to feel and to experience new, different and challenging perspectives and ways of doing things. In doing so, the aim is to bring new and fresh insights to address an increasing array of highly complex and adaptive business challenges related to change, innovation, creativity, agility, collaboration and transformation.

Organisations seeking to create a cadre of executives who will lead change, build a more innovative culture, or transform their organisation in some fundamental way will not do so by seeking inspiration or insight from people in the same industry who has the same worldview or DNA. That approach inevitably leads to sameness not difference.

 “I go to a meeting with a group of managers who attended the programme. Met them earlier where they fired questions at me. Thought initially this programme was a bit weird.

What do visits to Salvation Army, eating in the dark with blind people and talking to researchers from Shell have to do with leading better in the bank? I was mistaken.

Entering and discovering a completely different world and to hear how motivated others are, how they take responsibility and innovate is an inspiration to think about your own role.

During the meeting today, I hear how participants take initiatives to break through their own ways of doing and realise concrete improvements. What triggers me most is that they do not talk about what others should do better, but what they themselves can do differently and better.” – Bank Chairman (2012)

How and what to discover?

If you believe, as we do, that the ultimate aim of executive education is to help executives think critically for themselves and their unique context, then discovery should be at the core of your learning strategy. The role of the expert facilitator or programme director is to create the context within which discovery learning is optimised. This is achieved by encouraging a set of skills and behaviours which:

  • Develop curiosity
  • Develop the ability to ask great questions
  • Engage all the senses
  • Learn how to learn and find learning in everything.
  • Observe the world through different lenses
  • Experience and feel new or different emotions
  • Try new things

In my experience the most effective discovery experiences have tended to follow certain basic steps which are outlined below. Each step requires significant attention, but perhaps none more than the actual execution of the experience itself. It is crucial that all participants play an active role and are fully engaged.

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Over the years I have led many discovery experiences. Below are a few examples of what is possible and the learning that is available. All are based on genuine examples where the discovery experience has been tailored to specific learning objectives to help resolve specific business challenges.

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In conclusion

Doing and knowing are not mutually exclusive. Knowing is not enough and knowing more is not enough. The translation into doing is everything if meaningful change is to be achieved.