Saturday, November 24, 2012

The Knowing-Doing Gap by Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert I. Sutton

Two different people I respect recommended this book to me for two different reasons. And it turns out they were both right. It’s a gold mine of useful information about one of the most crippling afflictions facing organizations today—the inability to turn knowledge into action.

As with most business books I read, the lessons I take away are not always the ones the author intends. But in reading them, ideas will often strike me with a clarity they very infrequently have in the mile-a-minute, topsy-turvy world of expectations and performance I seem to find myself in. I’ll list just a sampling of the “a-ha” moments I had while reading this book.

There Are No Wrong Actions

Here’s a handy chart.

How to Drive Fear and Inaction Out of Organizations
1. Praise, pay and promote people who deliver bad news to their bosses.
2. Treat failure to act as the only true failure; punish inaction, not unsuccessful actions.
3. Encourage leaders to talk about their failures, especially what they have learned from them.
4. Encourage open communication.
5. Give people second (and third) chances.
6. Banish people—especially leaders—who humiliate others.
7. Learn from, and even celebrate, mistakes, particularly trying something new.
8. Don’t punish people for trying new things.

Guess which one jumps out at me the most. “Treat failure to act as the only true failure; punish inaction not unsuccessful actions.” If you needed one sentence to summarize a winning formula, I think this would be it. Increasingly, in my line a work at least, I’m beginning to realize that there are no wrong courses of action. Some courses are better than others, but no course of action, taken with forethought and good intentions, is actually bad, because they all help move the project or the conversation forward. If you accept this premise, then the only truly wrong course of action is to take no action at all—to allow opportunity for engagement and learning to slip by.

Measure Performance at the System Level

The model of behavior implicit in the measurement systems used by most firms is that individuals are atomistic and economic, rather than social, creatures. The atomistic view is captured by having measure for each individual. This procedure presumes that (1) individual results are the consequences of individual decisions and actions and that (2) individual outcomes and individual behaviors are under the control and discretion of these individuals, so that results and decisions can be reasonably reliably attributed to individuals.

There’s a lot of wisdom in that short paragraph. It stresses the need for system-based performance measures in any organization that behaves like an interconnected and interdependent network of actors (i.e., just about every organization on Planet Earth).

What you are able to accomplish, and indeed, what you choose to do and how you behave, is not solely under your individual control. Rather, your behavior and performance are influenced by the actions, attitudes, and behaviors of many others in the immediate environment.

Right on. Find ways to measure performance at a system level, and provide incentives for contributing to systemic, not individual, performance.

Measure the Productivity of the Relationship, Not Individual Performance

More good wisdom on the performance appraisal process, this time direct from the vice president of human resources at the software firm SAS Institute:

If there were a good performance appraisal process, everybody would be using it. … I don’t think you can really manage someone’s performance. I think you can observe the results. I think you can give them the tools. I think you can set short and long-term goals. And you can sit back and see if it happens or it doesn’t happen. … Our idea is to have performance management be based on conversation instead of documentation.

Three cheers for that. And from a 1998 Fast Company article:

Too many leaders confuse feedback with paperwork. “Filling out a form is inspection, not feedback,” says Kelly Allan … “History has taught us that relying on inspections is costly, improves nothing for very long, and makes the organization less competitive.”

What does matter, evidently, is a metric that is closely related to your core competitive advantage. For SAS, in the very competitive software industry, that was employee turnover. Managers were evaluated primarily on their ability to attract and retain people, and the company went to great lengths to ensure that it was a great place to work.

In a relationship-oriented business based primarily on intellectual talent, SAS encourages long-term relationship behavior through its measurements and through what it chooses not to measure and make public. In a place in which the attraction and retention of talent is key, turnover and factors related to the building of talent are what the firm measures. The emphasis, even in a geographically dispersed organization of 5,000 people, remains on interpersonal communication—and emphasis consistent with the relationship-oriented business model and philosophy. You have relationships with people, not with reports or numbers.

Lots of good lessons here for the association world—a place where the emphasis on people, talent and relationships is equally important.

Internal Competition Retards Organizational Succeess

The authors spend a lot of time talking about the value of competition in the workplace. They are, in fact, quite dismissive of it, feeling that it retards performance far more frequently than advances it. Here’s an interesting section, reminiscent of many of the lessons in Dan Pink’s Drive, published more than a decade later.

The confusion between what it takes to do well in routine tasks, especially physical tasks, versus novel intellectual tasks is another reason that people develop misguided beliefs about the positive effects of competition on performance. … Hundreds of studies show that intellectual tasks that require learning and inventing new ways of doing things are best performed under drastically different conditions than tasks that have been done over and over again in the past.

The authors argue, persuasively, I think, that…

People are better at learning new things, being creative, and doing intellectual tasks of all kinds when they don’t work under close scrutiny, they don’t feel as if they are constantly being assessed and evaluated, and they aren’t working in the presence of direct competitors.

Learning, creative, intellectual work is far more associated with the modern workplace that raw, repetitive tasks. Furthermore, this kind of work requires something the authors call interdependence—productivity, performance, and innovation that result from joint action, not just individual efforts and behavior. And the problem is that…

When even modest levels of learning are required and some interdependence exists, individual incentives and internal competition discourage needed knowledge sharing, cooperation and mutual assistance.

The Value of Core Assumptions

I’ve been reading and thinking about the value of values, lately. The clarity and focus that can come from a clearly identified and respected set of organizational values. But one firm profiled in this book takes things a set further. Their core values—fun, fairness, integrity and social responsibility—strike me as yet another meaningless list. But they have something in addition to that.

It also has a set of core assumptions about people that it tries to implement in its management approach: that people (1) are creative, thinking individuals, capable of learning; (2) are responsible and can be held accountable; (3) are fallible; (4) desire to make positive contributions to society and like a challenge; and (5) are unique individuals, deserving of respect, not numbers or machines.

Now that is something I can sink my teeth into. Imagine what managing people would be like if every day—especially when we were facing some kind of management difficulty—we reminded ourselves of these five simple facts.

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