The Most Productive Way to Waste Time

knowing doing gap

Think about the last seminar you attended or business book you read. I bet you walked away from that seminar inspired and ready to put that knowledge into action in your business. But did you?

You spent hours (and possibly a large sum of money) to acquire this knowledge, but despite recognizing its benefits, how successful were you in implementing what you had learned?

This disconnect between what one knows and what one does was coined the “Knowing-Doing Gap” by Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert Sutton in their book The Knowing-Doing Gap: How Smart Companies Turn Knowledge into Action (HBR, 1999).

Please, Mind The Gap

Falling prey to the knowing-doing gap can be especially devastating to small businesses whose resources and time are more limited than that of larger companies. Pfeffer and Sutton identify a laundry list of factors that contribute to this gap, but I think there is one type that is particularly applicable to small businesses: “pseudo-action deceptions.”

This fancy term means that businesses convince themselves that “talk is action.” But that’s not the only pitfall. Let’s look at a couple of these pseudo-actions, so you can identify and avoid them in your business.

  • Thinking that talking is action
  • Thinking that planning is the same as action
  • Thinking that making a decision is the same as taking action
  • Thinking that measuring things is action or contributes to performance

Ultimately, the decision itself is seen as the same as acquiring those clients, and no action is taken.

Talk Ain’t Cheap

As Pfeffer and Sutton say, companies have “a tendency to treat talking about something as equivalent to actually doing something about it.” These errors occur at an alarmingly high rate in companies today. And it’s no surprise. It feels good to finalize the plans for something or to make a decision about a course of action—it relieves the stress of not knowing.

This can manifest itself in a number of ways. For example, a company may have a long meeting about acquiring new clients in which they make a decision about how they are going to get more clients. Hands are shaken, backs are patted, but then everyone goes back to business as usual. Ultimately, the decision itself is seen as the same as acquiring those clients, and no action is taken.

We can call this a “symbolic decision.”

Often companies don’t even get that far. Let’s imagine that a company holds a meeting, and at the end of that meeting they decide, “we need more information before we make a decision.” Fair enough. But then the next meeting comes, and it has the same outcome: “we need more information.” The truth is, the team can keep gathering data until the proverbial cows come home, but no amount of new information is going to be enough.

The problem is that people have a false impression that their reluctance to make a decision is due to a lack of information. They think, “If only I had all of the information, then I would do something.”

When, in reality, we become obsessed with making the right decision. We fret about making a mistake, and we think that answer is more information. This becomes a major obstacle to doing anything. We, then, forget the simple fact that a mere decision changes nothing. It’s only a means to an end, not the end itself.

When all is said and done, more is said than is done.

Typical Problem Areas

Now that we’ve got the basic idea down, I want to focus on two areas in which the knowing-doing gap can rear its ugly head that are particularly relevant to small businesses:

  • systems and processes, and
  • data measurement.

Systems and Processes

The value to your business of having proper systems and processes in place can’t be overstated. (Related: Reducing Small Business Stress) They can help increase efficiency and provide your customers with a reliable service and consistent experience. But they can go off the rails easily.

Let’s say you and your team spend a week brainstorming and mapping out a new system for upselling your services. You make reports and PowerPoint presentations, have hour-long meetings. But when you finally get the system written out, it never gets implemented.

In the end, you spent time and money talking, planning, and decision making, but all that talk goes nowhere and has no positive effect on your company’s performance.

You can solve this problem by making sure you follow up regularly on the progress you or your employees have made regarding an issue that was discussed. Periodically “quality check” your systems and processes to ensure that your hard work isn’t going to waste.

Pretty Numbers

Another problem area identified by Pfeffer and Sutton is measurement. Companies have managed to convince themselves that the more things they measure, the more successful they’ll be. But just like talk, planning, and decisions, measurement for measurement’s sake is worthless! Correction: not worthless, costly.

Pfeffer and Sutton wrote their book in the early days of the internet, before Google and Facebook. In today’s world, much attention (and money) is paid to data analytics. With the explosion of products like Google Analytics, which allow companies to measure almost anything about their digital presence, the allure of gathering data is all the more enticing. Some businesses pay tens of thousands of dollars a year for “vanity metrics” and data about their customers’ online habits.

No doubt this data can be very useful to you and your business. But the fact that you are measuring the page views, average time on site, bounce rate, etc. doesn’t contribute to the performance of your website or your business. You need to know what these data mean to your business and what actions the data prompt you to take.

You may be wasting time and considerable amounts of money on measurements that won’t benefit your company either because they are the wrong measurements or because you haven’t considered what actions those measurements require from you. In the end, you are paying for a bunch of pretty numbers and graphs.

Wasting Time Productively

As a small business, your time and resources are limited. To ensure that the steps you take to grow your business have the outcomes you want, you need to protect yourself against falling into the Knowing-Doing gap.

Make sure that:

  1. Talk and decisions are precursors to and help inform action, rather than standing in for it. Regularly check up on the progress of actions that you decide on. Schedule follow-up meetings and treat them seriously, just like you’d treat a follow-up appointment with your Oncologist—you definitely need to do it.
  2. You establish clear and measurable outcomes during each stage that are achievable in the timeframes that you set. If for some reason an objective is missed, honestly ask, “What are the roadblocks?”, “What should we prioritize moving forward?”, and “Do we need to revise our objectives?”
  3. You gather data and take performance measurements wisely. It simply isn’t the case that all measurements are equally beneficial for every business. Spending time and money for data that you don’t understand the implications of or that si immaterial to your business is wasteful. Then use the data that you acquire to inform your courses of action.

If you don’t, you are wasting your time and money, even if you feel that you are doing it productively.

Don't Sweat the Small Stuff

Corporate governance, meetings, and state filings can eat up a lot of your precious time. But missing these deadlines can wreck your business and destroy your liability shield!

Our Corporate Veil Program relieves your legal burden so you can focus on running your business. 

Consistent and Reliable Legal Advice

Here at Alexander Abramson, we focus exclusively on business-related legal matters. Our attorneys have advised business owners and entrepreneurs on corporate governance issues, shareholders and operating agreements, and succession planning for decades. 

We would love to speak with you directly about how we can help you start, grow, and protect your business. Call us at 407-649-7777 or email a team member to get started.

Scroll to Top