Hello there, this is Dan. 18 consultancy partners picked today's topic: The "Knowledge-Action Gap". Why we struggle to do what we know we should?

If you're struggling to put your plans into action, this is worth reflecting about.

Wish you a great reading.

One Idea

It is now a consensus that the classic economic idea of people behaving as rational agents is a nonsense myth.

We say we want one thing, then we do another. We say we want to sell more projects but we don't invest time into marketing and prospecting. We say we want to bring a new offering to market, but we continually postpone it. We say we want to take care of our health but we keep neglecting our eating, exercising, and sleeping habits.

When someone shows up and acts without contradiction, we’re amazed. When a consultant who's focused on writing writes every day, or when an overweight colleague committed to losing weight exercises regularly, we can’t help but applaud their actions. Why is it so difficult to do what we say we’re going to do?

It's our brain's fault. Every change management consultant knows that we value behavioral stability because:

  • It's efficient: We can predict behavior (both our own and that of others), and devote fewer mental resources to monitoring our surroundings and executing tasks.
  • It's safer: Under predictable conditions, we're unlikely to experience a threat response ("fight, flight or freeze" reaction). The stress and anxiety resulting from a threat response are not only unpleasant but also highly taxing, requiring energy and attention.

That is why we get trapped in what is usually called the "knowledge-action gap": You know what to do, but you can't seem to make yourself do it.

Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert Sutton authored a whole book about it. The management guru David Maister covered the same ideas (from a different angle) in his “Strategy and the Fat Smoker”. Themes like the importance of leadership, the role of incentives, and the tension between short-term comfort and long-term gain are common to both.

Every one of us is one google search away from a list of science-backed and real-life tested best practices to kick off any change. But how do you get out of your head and stop thinking about what you need to do, and actually do it? Motivation is never there when you need it.

These are some tried and tested tools at our disposal when we're seeking to make a change:

  • Break down large goals into smaller parts or tasks;
  • Add accountability by sharing your commitments with others;
  • Build momentum by celebrating and rewarding small wins;
  • Avoid obstacles by taking alternative paths to the goal;
  • Start small and scale up over time.

Treat your consulting business and career as you would treat a client. If you can't bring yourself to make the changes you know you need to make, it might be worth following expert advice and implementing some of these tactics.

One Quote

“The tendency for organizations to place too much value on people who seem smart and who talk a lot, and too little value on people who do smart things and get a lot of things done, is exacerbated by the way that MBAs and executives are taught and by the methods used in most management consulting firms.”

Source: Jeffrey Pfeffer, “The Knowing-Doing Gap”

One Number

While I don’t have any statistics that apply exclusively to the consulting industry, it’s easy to illustrate the importance of the knowledge-action gap by looking at several other fields:

  • Healthcare: "Approximately 50% of patients do not take their medications as prescribed." (WHO)
  • Environmental: "While 94% of the U.S. population has access to some type of recycling program, the recycling rate is just 34%." (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency)
  • Cybersecurity:  "65% of people use the same password for multiple accounts, despite widespread knowledge of the risks involved." (Google Online Security Survey)
  • Personal finance:  "21% of Americans are not saving any of their income for retirement, emergencies, or other financial goals, despite the general awareness of the importance of saving." (Bankrate)
  • Public health: "The CDC reports that only 23% of Americans get the recommended amount of exercise per week, despite the well-known health benefits of physical activity." (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

As Pfeffer puts it, “One of the main barriers to turning knowledge into action is the tendency to treat talking about something as equivalent to actually doing something about it."

One Question For You

Am I procrastinating under the guise of needing to "learn more"?

Conventional wisdom suggests that one must acquire knowledge first and then take action based on that knowledge. But we often forget action leads to outcomes, and these outcomes provide new information that can be analyzed and used for future actions. By delaying action, you’re missing this feedback loop.

For some situations and tasks - and if I may say it, the vast majority of marketing and business development implementation activities - the best way to understand something is to engage with it directly. You learn by doing.

Think of it like learning to ride a bike. You can read all the manuals and watch all the videos in the world. But you won't truly understand it until you get on the bike and start pedaling. The action of riding provides immediate feedback (balance, speed, control) that you can't access through theoretical knowledge alone.

Thanks for reading. You can get more specialized and actionable growth insights for micro consultancies in our newsletter. Every Tuesday, you get one idea from Danilo, one quote from other experts, one number you need to hear, and one question for you to level up your consulting practice.

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