I have a client
with a common problem: The firm has implemented a sophisticated quality
management system but many people aren't following it. Sound familiar?
any number of corporate activities and directives—from making sales
calls to implementing strategy to filling out time sheets—and in all
likelihood your firm has experienced the same problem. Employees aren't
doing the things they're expected to do. They know what to do, they're
capable of doing it, they're even motivated to do it in some cases. But
it's still not happening.
Stanford professors Jeff Pfeffer and Bob
Sutton call this predicament "the knowing-doing gap" in their popular
book by the same title. They conclude—and I would concur—that the
biggest difference between companies is not what they know, but how well
they're able to put what they know into action. Best practice insights
are a commodity these days, but implementation acumen is a rarity.
I'm a strong advocate for the use of positive reinforcement
and other strategies from behavioral science in managing performance.
Let's apply that wisdom now to the challenge of getting things done.
Most firms take a familiar path in trying to solve problems like my
client has. They step up the pressure, tweak the process, reassign
responsibilities, do more training, modify goals.
These steps are all antecedents,
things that come before and set the stage for action (or behavior).
Antecedents are important, but they're not effective in sustaining
behaviors over time. Unfortunately, most managers rely almost
exclusively on antecedents in trying to change behavior. There's a
better way. Let me outline some key steps in closing the knowing-doing
gap in your firm:
Define the specific desired results. Sometimes
firms launch initiatives without clear objectives. For example, if you
implement a new quality process, what do you hope to accomplish? Improve
quality? That in itself is not a very helpful goal (by the way, most
quality programs fail to significantly improve quality). How much
improvement do you expect? In what specific areas? How will you measure
I don't think I need to review here the qualities of SMART goals.
You're undoubtedly familiar with the concept. Yet I'm surprised how
many firms I've witnessed investing substantial time and money in
various strategic efforts that lack explicit performance goals. That
makes it much harder to change behaviors. Which do you think works
better: Ask an employee to work harder or tell her specifically what
more needs to be done? Review your goals and see if they meet the SMART
Seek to understand why. If people
aren't doing what they should, start by exploring the reasons for this.
Certain antecedents may be a factor, but you need to consider the
consequences of behaviors as well. While positive reinforcement is a
powerful motivator, it's important to recognize that it can work both
for you and against you. If workers aren't doing what is desired, that
contrary behavior is undoubtedly being reinforced in some way.
example, failing to do a quality review saves time, is easier, may give
one the sense of fitting in with their fellow noncompliant colleagues,
or could even earn a compliment for finishing the work on schedule.
These individuals may not be aware that these consequences are
influencing their actions, but you can uncover likely sources of
influence through some inductive reasoning and asking good questions.
Once you have a better understanding of why people do what they do,
you're able to take more effective steps to support behavior change.
Address antecedent shortcomings, but don't stop there.
We're all accustomed to the usual fixes—new or revised programs,
policies, procedures, action plans, tools, reorganizations, trainings,
etc. These can all be part of the solution, but usually are insufficient
in closing the knowing-doing gap. Sometimes the "fixes" even exacerbate
the problem of inaction.
The important question is always: How do these steps help people do what needs to be done?
Be persistent in pursuing the answer to that question. Most
"structural" solutions to organizational problems are incomplete. New
processes, of course, can only be effective when followed. Technology
investments require a corresponding change in how people do their work.
Training rarely is effective unless reinforced over time.
Changing behaviors is almost always part of the solution. And it's usually the hardest part. So let's talk about that next...
Identify specific behaviors needed to achieve your desired results. This requires a step called pinpointing,
determining those few behaviors that are most critical to achieving
your desired results. Don't get overly ambitious. This is the problem
with most corporate initiatives—like implementing a quality management
system—where firms try to tackle too much behavior change at one time.
better approach is to phase in change, guided by staged objectives.
Don't attempt full compliance to your quality procedures at first, for
example. Instead, pick perhaps 3-5 pinpointed behaviors that will have
the biggest impact on quality (or whatever your goal is). Once those
behaviors become commonplace, then add a few more and so on.
Use effective metrics. There
are two types of measurement associated with pinpointing solutions: (1)
leading indicators that typically measure behavior and (2) trailing
indicators that measure results. Obviously, the later is far more common
in business. But measuring behavior enables you to better evaluate your
progress and to target course corrections where needed.
you measure behavior? There are two primary ways—counting and judging.
Counting, of course, is more objective and should be preferred where
possible. Having identified pinpointed behaviors, such as completing a
discipline-specific technical reviews for all multidisciplinary
projects, you can then count how often that occurs when it is called
For behaviors that don't lend themselves to counting, you
should consider judging. Because it is subjective, this kind of
measurement should come from more than one person. For example, you
could have project managers anonymously grade how well department heads
support them in getting buy-in from technical staff for the firm's new
quality process. The composite grades could then be tracked over time to
look for improvement.
Metrics work best when oriented towards
providing positive reinforcement. Unfortunately, many firms use metrics
for negative reinforcement. Whenever you have the choice, choose to
measure desired behaviors versus problem ones, then favor rewards over
punishments. Rewards, by the way, need not be material; compliments and
recognition go a long way.
Provide regular feedback and reinforcement. Imagine
your favorite college football coach giving instructions to his team on
how to conduct the prescribed practice drills. Yet in this case, he
sends them off to practice on their own while he goes to his office.
"You can come to my office if you have questions," he tells them, "But
I'll wait to give you feedback until after the game on Saturday."
he wouldn't last long in the coaching profession, because that approach
clearly would not succeed in getting top performance from the team. But
did you notice the familiar ring to that illustration? It's how most
business managers direct their teams. "Here's what you need to do. Let
me know if questions come up. I'll give you feedback only after you've
finished (if at all)."
If you're going to provide effective
feedback and reinforcement, you need to periodically observe the
pinpointed behaviors. The more frequently, the better. Too busy for
that? Maybe you should reassess how you allocate your time if you serve
the role of manager. The manager's first priority, in my opinion, is
helping the team succeed.
What's the difference between feedback
and reinforcement? Feedback is sharing information that enables one to
adjust their performance. Measurement can be an effective tool for
providing feedback. Reinforcement involves creating or leveraging
consequences that cause behavior (in this case, the desired behaviors)
Any solution that involves changing behaviors should
include these steps. To review, these are the key questions you should
address in closing the knowing-doing gap:
- What are the desired results?
- What's motivating people either to comply or not?
- What are the few vital behaviors needed to produce those results?
- How will we measure progress toward both the pinpointed results and behaviors?
- How will we provide performance feedback?
- How will we reinforce the pinpointed behaviors?
you'd like to learn more about this approach to closing the
knowing-doing gap and inspiring better performance, check out related
articles by Aubrey Daniels and his associates at this website. I also found his book Bringing Out the Best in People extremely valuable.