I led a discussion of The Knowing-Doing Gap with a group of about 60 project managers yesterday. The Knowing-Doing Gap was my first management book; Jeff Pfeffer and I published it in 2000. But interest in it persists. After all, every organization (no matter how successful) struggles to turn knowledge into action.
Project managers are an especially interesting group to talk with about gaps between talk and action because they are often charged with implementing what senior managers say. This means that, if what executives say is helpful and authentic, it helps them do their jobs. But if those words are useless, hypocritical, or insincere, then it makes their jobs a lot harder – and it breeds cynicism as they are forced to ignore or even defy what their leaders say to get their jobs done.
This all came into sharp focus yesterday when we were talking about management philosophies, and how the best leaders use philosophies that are general enough to guide a wide range of actions, but specific enough to actually be useful. I gave some of my favorite examples. At IDEO, they say “enlightened trial and error outperforms the planning of flawless intellects.” This sounds like fancy language, but at IDEO, it means – whether it is a product, a customer experience, or an organizational process you are developing – that you better spend most of your time developing and testing prototypes, rather than talking about ideas that MIGHT work. At Intel, they say “disagree and then commit.” This means that, before a decision, you are expected to argue about what should be done and why, but after the decision is made, the time for argument is over. Instead, it is your job to help implement it rather than to keep second guessing the decision.
The project managers gave lots of examples,
both good and bad, of management philosophies that they lived under. The most
impressive was manager who worked at Genentech who printed out their philosophy,
brought to the class, read it, and explained how it affected so much of what
she and her colleagues did every day. Here it is, straight from the first
page of their website:
Genentech's mission is to be the leading biotechnology company, using human genetic information to develop novel medicines for serious and life-threatening diseases. We commit ourselves to high standards of integrity in contributing to the best interests of patients, the medical profession, our employees, our communities and our stockholders.
This project manager emphasized that the phrase “using human genetic information to develop novel medicines for serious and life-threatening diseases” shaped whether or not they would try to tackle a problem and how they would do it. In particular, she emphasized, that Genentech focused on projects where they used cutting edge science and carefully avoided “me too” products that are developed by so many pharmaceutical firms. She emphasized that they talked about this phrase constantly, and that it not only affected which projects they started, it also guided the decision-making process for pulling the plug on projects. Finally, she emphasized that there was virtually no cynicism within the company about the philosophy -- something I find impressive, and perhaps the best litmus test of any management philosophy.
In contrast, another project manager from a large utility gave an unfortunate example of what happens when a company has an inauthentic philosophy, something that executives write and say that turns out to be untrue or a half-truth. In this case it was “Delight the Customer,” which she emphasized was not a true goal because they are monopoly and so it was the kind of thing that did not actually guide anyone’s behavior inside the company, but did generate cynicism among both employees and customers.
My “philosophy” on such statements is that, if you aren’t absolutely serious about living-up to them, or your company will be unable to do so, it is better to say nothing than to come across as hypocrite. The best cautionary tale I know of in this regard (given my focus on civilized workplaces) was the fiasco that the large law firm Holland & Knight had a few years ago, when after ballyhooing their “no jerks” policy to the press, a host of accusations of sexual harassment and related problems leaked out into the press -- especially to the St. Petersburg Times. To quote that newspaper, the lawyer at the center of this storm, Doug Wright, tried to defend himself at one point as follows:
In his defense during the investigation, Wright said he did not target women, and this week denied the harassment allegations to this newspaper.
"I joke and tease with everyone," he stated last year. "I suppose some might think that makes me an indiscriminate jerk."
I don’t believe that being an equal opportunity jerk is “better” than just acting like a jerk toward woman alone. And I do believe that that being known as a hypocritical and asshole infested company is even worse than being known as just an asshole infested company.
The upshot of all this is that a well-honed philosophy can have powerful and positive effects, in part, because one of the most important jobs of leadership is to help people make decisions about where they should be focusing efforts -- and a good philosophy like the one at Genentech can have such effects. BUT if a leader pushes a philosophy, he or she better mean it, or the hypocrisy will become obvious to everyone, and breed cynicism both inside and outside the organization.