Action Trumps Words

Most companies know or can know the same things.  But why do so few companies turn this knowledge into action?

Given the free availability of education and training, research, books and numerous articles on business it is disconcerting that so little changes in managerial practice.

Why are some organisations able consistently to turn knowledge into action even as they grow and absorb new people and businesses, while other organisations, composed of thoughtful, intelligent, hard-working, nice people, fail to do so?

Great companies achieve remarkable performance from ordinary people.  Not so great companies take talented people and manage to lose the benefits of their talent, insight and motivation.  Frequently, the management challenge is straight forward.  Everybody knows what needs to be done yet few get close to delivering what is so obvious.  

Some of the reasons for the failure to act reflect the darker side of management.  

  • We love to talk.  Talk is confused with doing something.  Clever talk can actually make you look good.  Document, presentations (especially those with rich graphics), and workshops are all substitutes to taking action.

  • We love complexity – after all complex things are more difficult to imitate.  Therefore, we believe complex concepts must be better than simple ideas. Often, using complex ideas, analysis and language to express our discovery is a way of impressing others with yet more talk.  These lines of reasoning confuse ease of understanding with ease of implementation.

  • Memory acts as a substitute for thinking.  Organisations can become trapped by their history when memory supported by stories about how things have always been, or used to be, becomes a substitute for taking action wisely

  • Strategies are not effective without the values that support them.  Telling someone what to do is more powerful if it is supported by the reason why.  Businesses frequently overestimate the importance of the tangible, specific aspects of what competitors do, but underestimate the importance of the underlying philosophy that guides what they do and why they do it.  

  • Badly designed or unnecessarily complex measuring systems are among the biggest barriers to turning knowledge into action

The business text books offer advice with methodologies, processes, and templates on what to do.   Colleagues talk about the courage required, a few political fault lines, and send best wishes on seeing things through until a telling moment arises when you hear the advice “nothing will change until the behaviour changes”.  We all know that it’s leadership behaviours that are the bottleneck yet they frequently go on unaddressed.

Business is about people.  Yet so much management education and so called “good practice” is written as if people are just pieces on a manager’s board game.  Over the next few months I propose to share some material that hopefully prompts a practical discussion on how to address barriers to change.  I am really interested to learn about suggestions on how to make things happen with less friction.  In particular, I am keen to understand what other people think the role of leadership is.  I think it is pivotal.  I also think effective leadership is practised at multiple points in an organisation – not just in the Boardroom.  In the last few weeks, some commentators would have us believe that a leader’s most important task is to make big, bold, strategic decisions.  An alternative view, is that it is to facilitate the transformation of knowledge into action in a smooth and reliable way.  What’s your view?