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Knowing versus Doing—Traction versus Slippage

All too often, when we’re most in need of traction at work—at times of high competitive pressure or internal pressure or economic insecurity—we find ourselves experiencing slippage instead. Wheels are spinning, lots of energy is being expended, noise is emitted and sparks fly—but there’s no traction and, therefore, no forward momentum.

Sometimes the difference between traction and slippage is obvious. But other times, it can be rather subtle. How can you make the distinction for sure?

If you find yourself removing the same barriers today that you removed last year, last month, or yesterday—you’ve got slippage. It may not feel like slippage to you, because removing that recurring barrier allowed you (at least temporarily) to get something done on behalf of your company. But in a longer perspective, it’s slippage—a place where people needlessly spin their wheels time and time again.

Every company is filled with mudholes where slippage is the norm. For example, think about the many varied approval processes you probably face related to budgets, routine spending requests, project go-aheads, hiring or firing decisions, and so on. How many of these processes are empty formalities—hurdles that you (and other managers) must repeatedly jump for no good reason?

Or consider the people problems you’ve had to “solve” over and over again. There’s the gal in marketing who finds fault with every new product launch and never buys into the program until she gets a personal plea to cooperate from someone at the executive level. Or the guy in IT who lets requests for computer upgrades pile up on his desk for months until his boss lays down the law and forces him to act. Or the department that’s run like a private fiefdom by a manager who hoards information and devises his own strategic plans that never quite mesh with anyone else’s, until a vice president personally intervenes. All of these are classic examples of wasted time, energy, and resources—slippage.

In some cases, we’re blind to these corporate mudholes. In other cases, we’ve accepted them as the way things are. And in still other cases, we’re aware of the problems but just can’t find the time or motivation to address them.

These kinds of problems aren’t confined to the business arena, but crop up constantly in the personal realm as well. How many people do you know who have quit smoking or lost the same ten pounds repeatedly? (Maybe you are one of them.) My own experience with online banking provides another good example. For years I was sitting down twice a month to pay my bills by hand, all the while knowing that online bill paying could save me time, energy, and money (no more stamps to buy). I just didn’t commit myself to setting it up. When I finally did, the rewards were immediate, substantial, and permanent. What took me so long?

Behavior like mine reflects what’s known as the Knowing versus Doing gap—a common problem in business (and life) that the highly respected professors Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert Sutton have written and lectured about extensively. A handful of companies are aware of these gaps and have created a culture that attacks them. They look for the gaps, create new systems to close the gaps, and periodically evaluate their effectiveness so that necessary follow-up changes can be instituted.

Sadly, such companies are rare. Most of us work in companies where the existence of the Knowing versus Doing gap isn’t recognized. Consequently, some of our most persistent and debilitating problems are never addressed proactively. Instead, we act only when the pain becomes too great.

What’s important is that we open our eyes to see these gaps, then begin to work on the ones where the potential reward for a solution is greatest.

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