Leading Change – Knowing/Doing Gaps (Week 7)

Do you ever feel that there is never enough knowledge or resources (including time) to do what needs to be done in life, or work?

I feel this is a Captain Obvious question given the copious quantities of captain-obvious-strikes-againleadership/management/self development literature around and because, well, I feel like this often.  In our personal and business lives we spend a lot of time figuring out what needs to be done and assume that once we have figured it out, implementation will be easy. Recalling how many times I have started on a journey to eat more healthy and exercise more and not being able to sustain it long term, implementation is certainly not the easy part! This failure can’t all be down to lack of willpower or motivation, can it?

This is where the knowing/doing gap comes in – knowing what should be done but not being able to get it done. It’s a relief to be able to acknowledge that getting things done to bring about change is genuinely difficult because we have to jump this gap. We need to approach change knowing that it will take energy and resources to overcome the gap, get through the messy middle as noted by Rosebeth Moss-Kanter and embed this new way of being. 

Minding the Gaps

In the world of work there are three sub-gaps which feed into the knowing/doing gap and we need to be mindful of them. These are:

  • the Leadership gap – change should be 80% lead and 20% managed. Instead its usually the opposite. The focus tends to be on the short term fix, tasks, details, procedures and trying to smash the unpredictable into the predictable and increasing control. These are levers of management which sacrifice bigger picture, inspirational and transformative thinking indicative of leadership.

How this plays out in our organisation is the constant starting of new projects before the old ones are bedded down. You can almost hear groans of “here we go again”  from the team, as we watch our leaders roll up their sleeves for about 5 minutes, hand it over for implementation and then prospect for the next shiny thing. Implementation reports are never as “sexy” as new shiny thing prospects. As leaders we need to have the courage to prioritise and face up to the prospect that there will be prospective projects that we will have to consign to the “one that got away” category and be at peace with that.

  • the Practice gap – this is the gap between the knowledge, tools, policies and mike tyson imagechecklists we have and applying these to make things happen in complex and challenging environments and situations. I see this as a theory vs practice gap because between theory and practice exists uncertainty, limits of prescription and unpredictability. As Mike Tyson says “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face“. We need to accept as Mike Tyson did that we will get punched in the face with change. The idea is that it doesn’t have to end as a Knock Out! 

I have to admit relief in acknowledging the existence of this gap. I think back to the energy I have spent in making implementation look easy – peddling furiously under that lake whilst gliding serenely over its glassy surface. There is a real light bulb  moment for me here  – understanding I need to be less hard on myself in viewing  my own performance in change – no matter how thoroughly I prepare my tools and checklists, they are only one part of the script and the performance gap is inevitable. It is only by accepting this that I can be free to experiment, question myself and others, recognise the possibility of error and build resilience to overcome the gap. Getting creative is what it is about.

  • the Power gap – the gap between what managers are expected, requested or required to do and the time, people and resources that are available to them to get the job done. There are 4 reasons for the gap:
    • diversity and inclusion – change initiatives may depend on actions and support of people holding divergent views whom we have no control over. This increases the complexity of change
    • power and powerlessness  – both of these can act against change where the powerful and the powerless oppose the change. The less autonomy and discretion people have in their jobs the more desperately they will cling to the status quo
    • structural inequalities – readiness to change means the change is relevant to you. Are people ready to change? Do they have faith that leaders will live up to their promise?
    • over-promising and under-delivering – leaders being committed to the aspirations of change but being uninterested in the problems that need to be addressed to see them through. This is so common in my organisation and I confess I have been guilty of it on occasion and I now understand more the impact this can have on a team.

Navigating the Gaps – Act Like an Entrepreneur

Knowing that the gaps are inevitable what can we do about them? My key take away here is to approach these problems like an entrepreneur – with all the energy, vision, creativity, tenacity and resilience you can muster. As Rosabeth Moss-Kanter says entrepreneurs are dissatisfied and feel restless about a problem, but have a firm belief they can do something about it. Rosebeth also reminds us that answers to problems can be found from anywhere, at any level and reinforces that not all who wander are lost. Wandering is in fact required to bring new ideas to add to the organisational  kaleidoscope to foster creativity. Often innovation comes from putting fragments of existing ideas together in different ways, just like a kaleidoscope. For more on this, have a look at Rosebeth’s video:

So what does entrepreneurship  look like? Here’s a check list, but remember the limits of prescription from the discussion on the Practice Gap above!

  1. Learn to deal not just with the rational, but also the emotional  – in yourself and others
  2. Influence yourself as well as others – leadership
  3. Overcome your fear of failure
  4. Create safe spaces for learning (play) and failure in the process
  5. Be mindful and considered in your approach and others’ reactions to change
  6. Maintain adaptability
  7. Be a do-er and not a complainer
  8. Network and build a power base
  9. Understand the politics and environment – work the grain with the grain and use the politics and environment against the politics and environment to bring about the right conditions for change
  10. Expect criticism and push through the messy middle, but keep the rose coloured glasses in the back pocket so you can call a spade  failure a spade failure when you need to.

Navigating the Gaps – Act Your Way to Being a Leader

What really resonated with me this week was Hermina Ibbara’s work on the authenticity paradox and on acting and thinking like a leader. You can find the videos on her work below:

Hermina provides us with her own personal example of knowing what to do, seeing others do it to achieve success, but not doing it because “it is not who we are”. So how can we be the leaders we want to be, ie. be more effective and still be who we are? I have been grappling with this question for some time in my own role within my current organisation and not coming up with any clear answers, so hearing Hermina articulate her experience and learning was transformative.

Before starting with my current organisation, I worked in private legal practice for over 20 years. I was good it it, solving complex legal problems, implementing legal strategy and coming up with innovative solutions. In that environment it helped to be the smartest person in the room. In the not for profit sector where I now work, that is not the currency for effectiveness. In this environment, heart is important, social factors are critical and emotional connection is vital. Having a logical solution alone just doesn’t cut it anymore. Knowing this, I had no idea on how to move in the right direction, to let go of having everything steeped in logic or how to grapple with the discomfort of working it out.

But Herminia’s idea of redfining our job and acting our way into leadership thinking makes sense. What I have been doing (unknowingly) over the past couple of years is redefining my job and expanding my network to better align with my leadership aspirations and to make me more effective in the environment in which I now find myself. After hearing Herminia, I now understand that I have been too tentative in my approach and feeling like I would be “found out”. This hasn’t happened yet and in fact, I have had moments where I have come up with the very idea that has moved a problem forward even though the subject matter is not totally in my patch. The leader to which I aspire to become is not afraid to throw in an idea that may be outside of her core area of technical expertise.

Herminia also gave me clarity in her discussion of the authenticity paradox. Is there a way to be effective and still be yourself? Focusing on the emotional and not the rational goes against how I see myself. I tell myself that emotions are fickle and have no role to play in a being competent lawyer analysing a complex legal problem and coming up with a solution. After all, the lawyer is the one that everyone looks at to be calm in the time of crisis and complexity.

However, what I am trying to be here is a leader with legal skills rather than just a lawyer, so it is not serving me. Taking on board what Herminia says, I now realise the better we are at something the harder it is to want to feel discomfort in something in which we are a novice. I also realise that there is more than one self at play in a transformation moment  – the self you are now and the self you are aspiring to be. This means that taking on new ways of being effective that don’t feel right (yet) does not have to be alienating of self. You can be you and take on board new ways of being.

This allows me to experiment more with confidence, know that it won’t feel comfortable and understand this is OK. Knowing that these feelings are not uncommon will also make me a better coach and mentor.

The Bottom Line

The knowing/ doing gap will always be there. As a leader of change, I need to acknowledge it and factor it into any change plan. Tackling this gaps with an entrepreneurial spirit whilst not being afraid to experiment and fail, but maintaining vision and influence is a challenge. Knowing that the discomfort in transformation is likely coming from experimentation and shedding old perceptions of self , rather than lack of ability will fuel action, where hesitation once lived.

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