Closing the Knowing Doing Gap

Closing the Knowing Doing Gap

A presentation and workshop with Lise Hvatum at SPA 2008.

For more dialogue sheets examples:
Designing the Agile Company, Lean into Action and Retrospective Dialogue Sheets.


One of the problems I regularly see in companies and organization is this: People in the organization know how they can do better but they don't do it. They may even have been trained in how to do things but they still don't do it.

I am not alone, Lise had observed similar things in her organization and in fact there is a book about exactly this problem:
Knowing-Doing Gap by Pfeffer and Sutton (1999).

So we set out to find out for ourselves, and for our workshop participants what could be done about this gap. We named our session after the book - hopefully Pfeffer and Sutton don't mind - and set about creating an interactive workshop to investigate.

The workshop

We decided to use a technique known as
dialogue sheets. As presenters we created an A1 sized worksheet, think of it a little like board game. We divided our audience into three groups of four people each and they completed the worksheet - or played the game if you prefer.

To start with Lise and I presented the problem then described the dialogue sheet. Each team then completed questions 1 to 4 before we broke for coffee. After coffee we did a short presentation including some ideas from the book and some of our own. The teams then completed questions 5 to 8. Finally each team described their findings to the whole group and we discussed the problem and the findings.




We made a list of the problems that lead to the knowing doing gap, and a list of possible solutions. These were the suggestions from the teams and we could only record the basic idea. The following lists give the suggested causes, and possible solutions.

Problems that create the Knowing-Doing Gap

Or, why organizations don’t change

More than one team chose to focus on automated testing:
  • People/Organization do not see the benefits of changing
  • Training is not enough – it needs to be followed up to ensure the knowledge is put into action, e.g. through coaching
  • Limited resources in organizations
  • Individuals encounter a steep learning curve
  • Companies do not provide the time required for learning
  • Learning and change need support.

More general points concerned:

  • Lack of time to learn and put learning into action
  • Lack of time can be an excuse hiding deeper issues
  • Narrow minded companies and people, e.g. if it is not Microsoft we don’t want to know
  • Individuals have different experiences
  • People are stressed – makes it more difficult to learn and try new things
  • People are not receptive to change
  • Benefits may not be obvious so people reluctant to change
  • People seek immediate gratification, if the benefit is not immediate they will not try something new
  • Need to explain the question, not just the answer
  • Change means extra work
  • People are afraid of being seen as different
  • Doing ‘as usual’ does not need thinking – getting people out of autopilot mode
  • Problems may be painful but the pain is bearable, there is not enough pain to trigger change
  • Corporate processes which must be followed
  • Misaligned incentives - Bonus bring about the wrong focus
  • Lack of empowerment among employees
  • Need to show progress
    • Pressure to appear to progress towards goal
    • Tasks completed when 90% done leave work to be done
  • Homeostatis: pressure for systems to stay the same
  • Process given priority over intuition

Suggestions for surmounting the Knowing-Doing Gap

  • Pay attention to the gap and work hard to fill it
  • Involve people personally - Help them see the benefit, provide feedback and rewards
  • Trust individuals
  • Build a network of people and knowledge
    • Relationships built on trust
    • Work on your relationships
    • And use your relationships

  • Walk the walk: follow your own advice and suggestions
  • Evolve as you go – use retrospectives
  • Create a learning culture: a safe environment and management leadership
  • Share knowledge – lunch time brainstorming sessions
  • Discuss problems with colleagues
    • Make a date and pose the problem before hand so they can think about them in advance
    • Discussions are important for ideas and encouragement before action

  • Prove your ideas
    • Provide working examples
    • Use metrics to convince managers

  • Ask managers for practical advice - Be specific in what you ask for
  • Create a sense of urgency
  • Motivate people and get their commitment
  • Sometimes you need formal authority: if so ASK
  • Visualise, plan, educate, lead
  • Be braver
  • JFDI – Just have Fun Doing It

More about dialogue sheets

Another source of information was the
Royal Institute of Technology (KTH) in Sweden who, we believe, invested the sheets. Some more information in this paper.

I originally came across dialogue sheets at a
Knowledge Cafe organised by David Gurteen.

More dialogue sheet links