More than a decade ago two Stanford University Business School professors Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert I. Sutton published The Knowing-Doing Gap: How Smart Companies Turn Knowledge into Action (2000), which explores various barriers to action in corporate culture. Pfeffer and Sutton explore a range of topics including how over-concern for performance metrics, planning, assessment, and fear of failure can lead to inaction at critical moments, and even organizational stasis.
A recent article posted to the Theatre Communications Group website by TCG executive director Teresa Eyring, “Action Speaks Louder than Words,” invokes the “Knowing-Doing Gap” and calls for less navel gazing and more action in the cultural community. The question, “How much assessment and planning is sufficient to chart an informed path forward?” is more critical than ever today, as both time and money are in short supply and planning can be costly on both accounts. Moreover, the environment in which cultural organizations operate today is so volatile that immediate, but considered action is required to both solve problems and leverage opportunities.
Indeed, every problem is an opportunity waiting to be explored. Yet, from my vantage we see an over-abundance of planning and assessment projects where the pace is far too slow to solve the problem, or the scope more vast and expensive than the issue warrants. Many of these syndromes are created by the constraints of funding. For instance, does it make sense to spend 18 months and tens of thousands of funder dollars to produce a plan for an organization that barely supports $200,000 per year in programs and 1.5 staff? Likewise, does a 65-page Strategic Plan (with no budgetary numbers, but produced at a five-figure funder cost) make sense for an organization with barely $40,000 in reliable programmatic operations and no full-time staff? There is no scientific answer to these questions, but to my mind, neither passes the laugh test, and today we can’t afford such inefficiencies. Sure, these organizations needed some analysis and planning, but the solution needs to be proportionate to the problem and resources just enough for the opportunity—no need to kill a fly with a flamethrower. Moreover, planning is preparation for implementation. When the planning solution doesn’t fit the scale and scope of the project or organization the plan becomes its own barrier to implementation and just ends up sitting on a shelf. In the end, action is indeed louder than words. So, as a short guide to closing the Knowing-Doing Gap, we offer the following things to consider.
(1) Don’t wait for permission. Solve the problem.
We spend a lot of time waiting for planning processes to unfold, experts to weigh in, as well as decisions from donors and funders to solve problems or realize opportunities. Granted, some problems do take substantial resources to solve, but when it comes to planning and process, not everything requires an expert or a facilitator. Even though CultureWorks provides consulting services, I find it refreshing these days to see more organizations undertaking assessment and planning internally, without the support of external consultants. Sometimes consultants are necessary, but many problems can be solved by the people closest to them: staff and board members. Trust your judgment. Go with your gut. You probably know more than you think, and consultants are not keepers of secret wisdom or keys to a magical kingdom. I would like to see more funders and donors likewise trust and accept the judgment and perspective of governors and managers, and employ consultants more judiciously. It would save the sector a good deal of time and money. Even if you need to access to particular expertise and have no money in hand, it is hard to imagine not being able to find volunteer or other low-cost resource within our community. So, get right to it, and start attacking the problem or investigating the opportunity.
(2) Planning is doing. Doing is planning.
You can plan all you want. But you never know whether your plan—and more specifically, your underlying assumptions—are feasible, until you actually start implementing. Indeed, we often plan as a means of avoiding doing. Planning and implementation inform each other, and therefore, the faster you can move back and forth between planning, doing, assessing, re-planning, re-doing, the more quickly you will achieve success. This is second nature to any entrepreneur—anyone who starts or builds anything. If you know the territory you’re working in and have developed good intuition, you’ll eventually reach your goal, but it takes lots of trial and error. Planning might reduce some need for trial and error, but in the end, any new direction (even if proven in other cases) will require new testing and proving in a different time and context. So, find a way to get enough of a plan together to start trying things. And if you need to engage experts and facilitators, don’t take months and months chatting and researching. Start as soon as possible to test your ideas in the real world.
(3) Own imperfection. Fail passionately.
Closely related to the above ideas, don’t be afraid to be imperfect and even fail completely as you try new things. There are many social and psychological reasons why we detest imperfection and fear failure. But accomplishing anything worthwhile takes getting dirty and a whole lot of setbacks. When recounting the many failed experiments that led to the development of the incandescent light bulb filament, Thomas Edison said, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” We often get hung up on our Grand Plan, and forget that to achieve it, we need to take 10,000 small steps, not two big ones. Similarly, perfection can be the enemy of progress. Steady (even small-scale) piloting and prototyping will get you much further than a giant influx of capital or seminal breakthrough. We tend to romanticize (to the point of mythologizing) how people achieve great things. When you look closely at monumental innovation and accomplishment, it mostly happens through small steps accompanied by a whole lot of trips, bumps, and setbacks. (And if you think about it, it’s easier to manage a bunch of small failures, than a really big one.) Don’t be afraid to own your setbacks, even boast about them. Some of your “failures” may in fact become your greatest successes.
Some closing thoughts on solutions…
I have been fairly critical of the consulting and funding fields, which may raise eyebrows since CultureWorks offers consulting services and works closely with the funding sector. As a closing salve, I affirm that there are indeed problems and opportunities that warrant lengthy and complex planning—at any given time CultureWorks is engaged in a number of such projects. But we are judicious about identifying the right scope of solution, in order to avoid inefficiency. And for those problems and opportunities that don’t warrant lengthy process, or are not accompanied by ample resources, we have created a Business Plan Boot Camp that delivers a Strategic Business Plan in one month for one grand. You can get some basic planning done quickly (and cheaply), but thoughtfully, and get right to doing, whether that is re-tooling an existing business or starting a new one. Even our regular workshop series—pointedly named “Do It.”—joins a general information session with one-on-one consultations designed to address individual problems on the spot, so that people leave the session having done something, instead of just listening to talking heads.
The funding community is also evolving with the times, albeit on the slower time frame needed for larger institutions. There are two Philadelphia cultural grantmakers (that I’m aware of) who grant meaningful funds (five figures and up, in my view) on a near quarterly basis, which makes their grantmaking practices very useful for organizations facing significant problems. Many grantmakers, though, are still on a six to twelve-month grantmaking cycle, which makes it nearly impossible for them to participate timing-wise in many problem solving or business opportunities. That said, the answer does not lie entirely in reforming institutional funding, since there are beneficial attributes of that system that are highly resistant to faster turn-around times. One of the answers, I think, lies in cultivating a larger group of engaged and informed “angel” investors—individuals who operate in the cultural arena akin to angel investors in the for-profit sector. For more about this idea, see my post “Company of Angels: Toward a New Philanthropy.”
In conclusion, one of the best hopes for closing the Knowing-Doing Gap is the proliferation and availability of management services in greater proportion than advisory services. The go-go 80s and 90s saw the meteoric rise of management consulting and advisory services in the cultural and greater nonprofit sector. We also invested heavily in data-driven research, defining best practices, and “professionalizing” the field. While advisory services and robust data can provide a great deal of value in the right situations, I think we have moved into an era in which 90% of the time we know what to do, but there is not enough money in the system to pay anyone to do it. We have amassed a tremendous body of data and best practices, but lack the hands and boots to act upon this knowledge. So what’s the solution? In my view, it’s shared services.
The creation of CultureWorks was motivated by a want to move away from the advisory services model to a management services model. (CultureWorks’ predecessor, Peregrine Arts, provided only traditional advisory services.) I felt our community needed more infrastructure resources to support individuals and organizations in implementation than pure planning and advisory work. This is why three out of our four programs (Cowork, Trust, and Venture) provide this direct infrastructure—shared space and community, shared back-office support, and a shared revenue generation team (marketing and fundraising). Shared services do not constitute a panacea, but one thing is certain: if we are to build the strength and vitality of our cultural sector, we need to keep a good eye on what we know and don’t know, and focus more energy on what we do.