Have you ever had an experience similar to this? Quarterly sales are down for the third straight quarter, competitors are gaining market share, and there is a general sense of urgency within the organization to take corrective action. The top management team, which used to meet once a month, now holds weekly meetings. These meetings are long and repetitive, and often end with decisions to hold more meetings to come out of the current situation.
It seems as if holding meetings becomes an end in itself, a substitute for strategic action. When an organization engages in excessive talk and little action, it is said to be suffering from the knowing-doing gap. It suffers not because it doesn’t know what it should do, but because it is focused on talking at the expense of action. Discussing ideas and options, critiquing available alternatives, and creating elaborate plans may all lead to better understanding and knowledge of issues, problems and solutions, but the ultimate litmus test of any knowledge or information lies in its conversion to action and implementation.
Why do organizations fall into this trap? A part of the reason may have to do with how managers are perceived and evaluated. In large organizations, it is not uncommon for supervisors to have the responsibility of doing performance appraisals for subordinates. It is practically impossible to know precisely the accomplishments of each subordinate. In the absence of such objective data, supervisors often go with overall impressions of a person’s intelligence and “visibility”. Often, people who are most vocal and forceful in meetings end up creating an impression of aptitude and acumen. Thus, words instead of actions get rewarded in such a system.
Anyone who has ever been responsible for implementing a strategy can attest to how difficult it is to actually put words into action. At the same time, it is easy to critique or “shoot down” another person’s idea without offering a better alternative. The harsher a critic you are, the more knowledgeable you sound and the better the impression you create on supervisors. Business schools are particularly culpable in this domain as they actively train and reward their graduates to excel in the art of word play — the use of jargon and impressive sounding words to substitute for action. Even after leaving business school, these graduates continue to let pretentious talk substitute for action.
Researchers have called this propensity the “smart-talk” trap. It should come as no surprise that one of the favourite career options among successful business graduates is consulting. Such jobs allow these graduates to extend their business school modus operandi of talk without any responsibility for actual implementation. People engaging in such smart talk come across as eloquent, articulate and confident, and are often rewarded for their gift of the gab. But it takes more than just creative ideas to move an organization forward. Ultimately, the market evaluates you by your actions, not just your words.
What are some of the possible ways of closing the knowing-doing gap? Researchers have recommended various mechanisms. First, everyone in an organization should partake in, and be responsible for, tangible action and outcomes. “I am a strategy person” is no excuse for shirking responsibility of action. Second, be wary of fancy and pretentious terminology. “Let’s aim for a paradigm-shifting, customer-centric approach that produces a quantum churn in virtual CRM through disintermediation” essentially tells you the person doesn’t have the vaguest idea of what he is talking about. Go for plain language. If a concept is too complex to be explained in simple terminology, it will be even more complex to implement. Third, shift focus from “why” to “how”. You can question and critique any plan to death. Instead of engaging in endless debates to get to that perfect plan, aim for a plan with a better chance of getting implemented. Improve through trial and error. Finally, never end a meeting without reviewing the actions and the people responsible for those actions that “close the loop.” The purpose of a meeting is not to generate minutes — it should be to initiate action.
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Praveen Aggarwal is an associate professor of marketing at the Labovitz School of Business & Economics at the University of Minnesota Duluth and Rajiv Vaidyanathan is a professor of marketing and director of MBA programmes at the University of Minnesota Duluth.