Turning Knowledge Into Action

June 6, 2009 at 8:39 am Leave a comment

I look at the bookshelves in my office (and in my den, bedroom, hallway and guestroom) and I see title after title on subjects such as leadership, time management, emotional intelligence, and the like.  And while I have many books on each of these subjects, my collection doesn’t represent a tiny fraction of what’s available.  The point being:  there’s so much to know!

Even after reading these books – and in many cases highlighting them, outlining them, and recording excerpts from them in a database – I don’t always feel that I’ve done any justice to all of this “knowledge.”  Yes, I feel that I’ve become somewhat of a subject-matter expert (SME) on many of these topics, basically because I can talk a blue streak when they come up in conversation.  But it frustrates me when I think of how much of this stuff stays in my head, banging around, looking for an exit other than rolling off my tongue.

To be fair, I HAVE applied much of what I’ve learned from books to my own life.  I first became enamored with business books at about the time Tom Peters’ best-seller, Thriving on Chaos came out.  I picked it up at, of all places, a grocery store while I was on a road-trip in California.  Even though I was on a rock-climbing vacation, I found myself obsessed with this book and each night couldn’t wait to get back to my camp so I could put on my headlamp and curl up in my sleeping bag with “Chaos.”  From that point on I was hooked.  I didn’t so much apply the knowledge from that book as embody it. 

I finished “Chaos” on that trip and upon returning home went straight to the bookstore and picked up Peters’ other two books A Passion for Excellence and In Search of Excellence.  I devoured them.  From there I went on a steady diet of books by the likes of Kotter, Bennis and Covey.  They began to shape my decisions and fuel my energy.  Was it just coincidence that at about that time I landed a job at Towers Perrin, an international consulting company?  On the surface, yes, as I started there on a random, temporary administrative assignment.  But that assignment caused me to be “discovered” by a principal of the company, and the rest is history.  I’ve been in the consulting business in one form or another ever since.

As such, I continually strive to unlock the secret of transforming knowledge into action. Not just for myself, but for others as well.  Whether I’m working in a consulting role or as a coach, I’m almost always working with extremely knowledgeable people.  Yet, the reason I’ve been hired is because they’ve got some business challenge that has them up at nights.  When we get right down to it, though, we usually discover that it’s not a matter of them not knowing what to do.  In fact, the solution is often pretty straightforward.  Just knowing what to do, however, is not enough to get it done.  It’s the action that comes after the knowing (or learning) that creates the value.  But, generating the action is often a challenge.

This is not an original observation, of course.  In fact, one of my other favorite books, The Knowing Doing Gap, by Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert I. Sutton, does a wonderful job of describing very valid reasons for why turning knowledge into action – as simple as it sounds – is anything but simple.  Just talking, for example, is not doing.  Thinking is required, but often overlooked.  Fear, poor judgment, competition.  Any and all of these explanations help us understand why reaching our goals is sometimes so difficult. 

Equipped with understanding, like being equipped with knowledge, is still not enough; but it’s a step in the right direction.  So, despite the fact that all that “knowledge” is between the covers of all those books, and reading those books helps to create some degree of understanding, the all-important action is still up to the individual . . . who must exercise self-discipline, fight the tendency to procrastinate, and find a source of motivation.   This is what separates the sheep from the goats, I suppose.

On one hand, the solution seems easy.  Easy to understand, anyway.  As Nike so concisely puts it, “Just Do It.”  On the other hand, not so much.  I think this is where it’s important to remember the oft-heard advice:  take baby steps; break it into manageable pieces; start small; don’t set your goals too high.  Even overachievers and superstars can understand the wisdom here.  Even they know that reaching too high, too fast, almost always leaves you empty handed; or, worse-off than you started.

There’s so much to know!  And knowing is not enough for most; knowledge that leads to action is what counts.  So what is the first step to putting all that knowledge banging around inside your head to good use?  Again, it sounds agonizingly simple, but I have seen it work time after time:  make a plan, write it down, look at it often.

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Entry filed under: Learning, Productivity.

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