Part 2-The Gap Between Knowing and Doing: Why Good Ideas Fail

In an earlier blog post, I wrote about the difficulty of execution. I highlighted the idea that we often fail to do what we know because we lack discipline. Using eating healthy and dieting as an analogy, I oversimplified the difficulty in doing what we already know to be true. Although oversimplified, it certainly made the point clear. When things go awry, it’s not usually due to a lack of knowledge, but due to our inability to consistently execute the behavior and actions we know will lead to the results we desire. So often good ideas fail because of poor implementation. The idea gets criticized as a failure when in actuality the implementation of the idea was poor. In this blog post, I want to expand on this concept.

I’ve written on this blog multiple times about our “dessert smorgasbord” tendencies. That is, when we learn of what we perceive to be a good idea, we immediately want to try them out, along with all the other good ideas we’ve found enlightening. The problem is that we lack focus and clarity in our effort to solve problems because we try everything, instead of working to contextualize the solution and find the one thing we think will help, and then execute and implement it with discipline, consistency, and monitoring of implementation. When we lack such discipline in the implementation of what we’ve initially deemed to be a good idea, we have a tendency to rush to quick judgment and reject the idea citing that it doesn’t work. The truth is this: It’s not the idea that didn’t work. It’s you.

Now, that’s a bold statement. So let me further explain. Our human condition requires that we provide ourselves with a set structure, specific strategies, and the like in order to execute an action in a disciplined and consistent manner. In reflecting on my experiences as a leader and subordinate, so often when ideas have failed to achieve the results we had hoped they would produce, I’ve come to realize that it wasn’t the ideas at all. It was a lack of preparation for implementation, a lack of planning for providing the right support, education, and training around the idea, a lack of planning in the design for how the idea would be implemented, monitored, and the evidence that would be used to determine if it was in fact working. Why is this? What causes folks to struggle with the implementation and execution of consistent, disciplined behavior? What can be done to avoid the criticism of good ideas as failures when in fact it is a failure in implementation?

I’m no expert, but here are my thoughts. First and foremost, recognize that being a visionary is not enough. Having a vision, developing a shared vision, and communicating that vision is certainly important. However, there must be a distinct plan for reaching that vision. Dreaming is necessary for aspiration and accomplishing that which may seem impossible, but a dream without work is reduced to a wish. A vision without a plan for implementation-and I mean a well thought out, strategic plan, supported by a structure for the work to be done, is nothing more than a wish. Wishing doesn’t work, but working does. Good ideas often fail because those who are responsible for designing the implementation of them don’t plan well enough, aren’t strategic, don’t create or alter the structure of the work to support the implementation of the idea, and don’t develop a clear mechanism for supporting the education and training of those who are to actually go forward and implement it.

Secondly, we must acknowledge that people, in general, lack discipline. Most of us are creatures of habit, good or bad, and struggle to be disciplined in our work, our personal lives, our diets, and other things. Knowing this, it ought not be a surprise that when we decide to implement a good idea, that it requires an extreme amount of discipline and to help ourselves we must provide structure and strategy.  This isn’t rocket science and I’m no scientist, but despite the fact that most folks know that every good idea is only as good as the ability to implement it with disciplined, strategic, action, folks still get stuck at visioning. Some might would disagree with me, but I believe that you can’t stop at the development of a vision. In order to make something happen, you have to do something, and that something has to be specific, strategic, and monitored regularly so that you don’t unconsciously slip into the mundane routine of “making it through the day”. I’ve watched so many folks declare a good idea a bad one because “it didn’t work” when in fact it wasn’t the idea at all. It was because he or she lacked the discipline to consistently execute the behavior needed to make the idea work, didn’t provide the right structure or strategy to support the implementation of the idea, and didn’t educate themselves or subordinates enough to implement the idea. The fidelity of implementation is a real challenge when it comes to making something work because the human condition lends itself to undisciplined behavior. It is our nature to operate in a state in which we do what is convenient, what is easy, what is best for us (instead of best for the organization), and what is comfortable. Failure to acknowledge the fact that good ideas require work and discipline, along with planning for implementation, will likely result in disappointment.

Thirdly, as leaders, I believe it is the leader’s responsibility to move the organization beyond vision. Some might disagree as I have heard over and over, the leader sets the vision. I don’t disagree with that, but in my opinion, it doesn’t stop there. If you recuse yourself as the leader from thinking about the details, your vision is reduced to a vague idea. Leaders should think about ideas not only in terms of their merit but in terms of their operation. What will this idea look like in practice? How will it work across various contexts and situations? What obstacles to implementing this idea can we anticipate? How can we work around or through the anticipated obstacles? What evidence will let us know if the idea is working? What support structures need to be put in place to aid in the implementation of the idea? Are there any specific strategies we should be focused on during the implementation? How often and who will monitor the fidelity of implementation? What does a successful implementation of this idea look like, sound like, feel like?  Leaders who recuse themselves from thinking about or through these questions are predisposed to failure. That is, they are more likely to cite the idea as a failure because they lacked the discipline of planning for implementation and following through with the plan.

Good ideas are often cited as failures because the people charged with implementing the failed to do the work needed for the idea to be a success. The leadership gap is the gap between knowing and doing. Knowing alone is not enough to be a successful leader. Leaders who intend to be successful must bridge the gap by doing what it takes to get the work done and doing so with disciplined, consistent, and strategic action. That, my friends, is the leadership challenge so many face. You can start by acknowledging the lack of follow-through we humans are prone to and putting some support structures and strategic actions in place to counter that. I think that’s a good idea, and if you agree, do something about it.

Until next time-be you, be true, be a hope builder!


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