The Innovation Knowing-Doing Gap

If you scrutinize the theories on innovation they seem to conclude for example, that ambidextrous organizations are best at handling incremental innovations rather than radical, and if we would focus more on learning, experimental organizations we would be better off… So why don’t we act accordingly? Bengt Järrehult takes a closer look at the reasons why we act against better knowing regarding innovation.

Lots of innovation data has been gathered and synthesized to information. We have read and understood this information thereby gathering knowledge, but there seems to exist a Knowing-Doing Gap hindering us from jumping into action. Sound familiar? There is a book on the subject called The Knowing-Doing Gap written by Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert I. Sutton. They state that there is very seldom a lack of knowledge that stops us from acting. The ones that succeed have started to apply an initially suitable bundle of principles that may lead them onward. They then learn-by-doing and correct along the way. For those who learn by doing there are no knowing-doing gaps! So what are the obstacles that stop the rest f us mortals?

The 1st obstacle is the No Action Talk Only (“NATO”) hurdle. It is common that an abundance of PowerPoint slides, reports and statements replace true action. How often have we been to brain-storming sessions creating promising ideas – but nothing happens afterwards? How often have we said that we have to share findings between the categories – only to continue to concentrate on our own stuff? How often have we said that we must focus on more breakthrough innovations – only to continue to focus on the daily upgrades? Only we can change this behavior!

The 2nd obstacle is the Memory Instead Of Thinking hurdle. When old successes are really old they turn out to be hindrances instead. Our strong identity with existing business models and the “way-things-are-done-around-here” seem to be inconsistent with new ways to do things. When we are remembering old failures and believe that the reasons why they did not work in the past must exist for ever, it seems like we are using the reptile brain around Amygdale (orange part) instead of using the human Neocortex (grey part). Only we can change this!

The 3rd obstacle is the Fear of Failure hurdle. Innovation often involves personal risk taking. You might fail. However we seem to think that small failures are as bad as large failures. They are not. We must favor doing small failures, repeatedly, in order to learn (you seldom learn if you don’t make mistakes) and eventually you will have a success. The ratio is more than 1:10, meaning that you have to fail 10 times in order to succeed 1.  This seems normal for the entrepreneurs, but the rest of us can contribute to a culture by acting in this mind-set!

The 4th obstacle is the Misleading Measurement hurdle. There is a back-side to the idiom “What Gets Measured Gets Done”. When a bonus system favors short-term gains – you get short-term gains…..but to the cost of long-term gains. When the measurement system is too complex, as some balanced score-cards are, we put major efforts into providing data to the system when we could have acted more operatively or strategically instead. Metrics are OK, but only we can ensure they work in line with our vision of being truly innovative.

The 5th and last obstacle is the Internal Competition hurdle. If we have a situation within the company where new positions need to be manned, we look at those who have performed well in the last 2-3 years. People know this. Hence, there may be circumstances when short-terms gains for staff improving their individual CVs turn contra-productive to overall change and long term efforts. Only we can change this in our procedures and processes.

What is stopping You and Your organization? How will you bypass this hurdle?

By Bengt Järrehult

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About the author


Bengt Järrehult is Fellow Scientist Innovation at SCA, a global hygiene products and paper company. He is also adjunct professor and visiting professor resp. at 2 departments of Lund University in Sweden. He is an avid reader of and presenter on the topics of innovation, especially on breakthrough innovation and the psychological hurdles that exist to achieve this, hurdles that we may or may not be aware of. He is of the opinion that most companies more or less know what to do to become more innovative. What they don’t know is what really hinders them from doing these measures…

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