Monday, August 25, 2008

Talking Shadows

In his poem `The Hollow Men', Nobel Prize winner T.S. Eliot may have captured the essence of human inertia.

"Between the idea and the reality, between the motion and the act, falls the shadow. Between the conception and the creation, falls the shadow".

When it comes to the world of business, have you ever noticed how this shadow is often formed by the dark cloud of empty words? As though discussing an issue and planning for action are the same as actually fixing it?

Years ago, after participating in a global experiment on the subject, I started refering to this pattern of behaviour as the Knowing-Doing G.A.P. It is fascinating to me why we can often think of a great idea or hear something that we very much would want to do, but will be hard pressed to act on it. Much later, I discovered others (Eliot, for example) who had already dissected this aspect of the human condition, leading me to wonder how it impacts business and personal performance. For example, how many people do you know are able to "read" their way into fitness? Or learn to manage and lead people simply by taking a class? With respect to creating a "seamless" brand that makes and keeps a promise that matters, closing this G.A.P. is of paramount importance if one seeks to boost the amount of "doing" in an enterprise so often lost in the shroud of "talking".

You might be wondering, why does this G.A.P. exist in so many corporate environments? How does that happen? Is there an underlying reason?

One explanation is that business education is quite different from other kinds of training. Soldiers, pilots, truck drivers, nurses, surgeons and even some radio announcers all receive classroom training, but it quickly gets turned into learning by doing. Infantrymen crawl on their bellies and pull triggers on the firing range. Pilots climb into the cockpit and fly. Truckers jam gears, while doctors, nurses and radio announcers confront inner fears. In fact, there is an old saying in surgery that describes how residents learn a procedure: "Hear one, see one, do one." In business education, it's more like , "Hear one, talk about one, talk about one some more". The G.A.P. doesn't exist for a lack of available knowledge. The "knowing" part is well taken care of with more than 30,000 business books published each year; corporate training is a $70 billion dollar a year business in North America alone and more than 90,000 MBAs graduate annually.

Maybe we know too much. Could being too "smart" prevent many of us from just jumping in and doing what Nike wants us to do. It doesn't take a brainiac to figure out doing it actually requires DOING something! Tackling the hard work of making it happen. It's much easier (and safer) to sit around, pontificate intellectually, gather research, absorb technical details - without actually implementing anything.

Think back to when you learned to ride a bike, swim, use a computer, swing a golf club or play an instrument. It started with taking a leap into unchartered, unknown waters. At a critical point, you made a decision to overcome what fears and anxieties that existed and jumped in. You took an action, saw the consequences, and decided to either continue, or take a new and different approach. Experience and reflecting on what happened always taught you more than any manual or lecture. If mastery is the grail you are chasing, active participation is the only route to follow.

So, by definition, "doing" means conquering F.E.A.R.* and learning and in the process, learning means you will be making some mistakes.

But, if companies genuinely want to move from just knowing to "doing", a culture of forgiveness needs to be in place so people who come up with smart ideas, implement and learn in the process are given some slack. We all need to know it's OK to try things, even if we think we might fail. That means an end to Accountability Witchhunts in favor of a "we've got your back" culture that exists at companies like WestJet.

WestJet isn't interested in pinning blame when things go wrong, as they inevitably do. They only want to get planes in the air, in a profitable manner and learn how to prevent hiccups in the future. WestJet is second-to-none in Canada when it comes to creating the kind of winning spirit that every company wishes they had but few possess. From what I have observed, WestJet enjoys the benefits of it's culture (record profitability, sky-high customer and employee satisfaction ratings,etc.) because they just don't wish for it or talk about it. The Calgary-based airline actually makes it happen and they've been doing it ever since they started in the mid-1990's. You will get a sense of that spirit in this archival footage.

There isn't a company I've encountered where they all don't talk about how much they like people, believe in their people and want to do well by their people. Fact is many firms will spend very little, if anything on the development, care and maintenance of the people who are most responsible for executing the delivery of the brand promise on the front-line. According to WestJet co-founder Don Bell, “A brand is a promise. You can spend millions of dollars on advertising but if that flight attendant treats a customer badly, or she doesn’t know what the current promotion is all about – all that money is gone. A smile is a logo too. And that’s what WestJet understands better than most.”

For successful companies, like WestJet, the Knowing-Doing G.A.P. does not exist when it comes to delivery of the brand promise. There is no difference between how they think, who they are, and what they do. I have experienced this first-hand many times as a passenger and again in making arrangements with the VP of Talent, Janice Webster and the "Rock Star of People" Tyson Matheson who are among the featured presenters at "TAKING FLIGHT", the Atlantic HR Conference coming to Moncton, October 1-3, 2008. You can learn more at

So when it comes to building a great brand from the inside out, you might be asking, "What do I do? When do I get started?" Why not follow the advice of former San Francisco 49ers head coach Steve Mariucci who once said, "I never wear a watch, because I always know it's now -- and now is when you should do it."

Leaving the shadow of the G.A.P. will mean taking a leap into the unknown, following a path of uncertain destination. Doing something you may not have experienced before. Forsaking the true cause of hollowness- failing to take action on a choice being offered.

How will you respond when the shadow appears?

*F.E.A.R. (False Expectation About Risk)

1 comment:

Ian said...

Another brilliant post Gair! I hope that the well runs deep because I'm enjoying every drop of insight.