The Difference Between Learning and Knowing

In Verne Harnish’s book “The Rockefeller Habits” he tell the story of a management consult visiting a steel mill. “With our services you’ll know how to manage better.” The CEO blew him off.

“What we need around here is not more knowing, but more doing! If you’ll pep us up to do the things we already know how to do, I’ll gladly pay you anything you ask.”

The consultant got the CEO to write down the five most important things he needed to get done in the next business day in order of importance. Then he told him:

“Put the list in your pocket, and start working on the most important number one. Look out that item every 15 minutes until it’s done. Then move on the next, and the next. Don’t be concerned if you only finished two or three, or even one, by quitting time. You’ll be working on the most important ones, and the others can wait . . . then send me a cheque for whatever you think it’s worth.”

The consultant was Ivy Lee, the CEO was Charles Schwab, and the mill was Bethlehem steel. Two weeks later they sent him a cheque for $25,000. Still a lot of money today, but a king’s ransom when this story took place.

When we are trying to learn something new, change a habit, modify our behaviour, or try to become more disciplined executing our commitments, all humans will hit a wall. Reading a book, going to a course or participating in a workshop are all great ways to keep “sharpening our saw” and learn new things, but if we don’t do anything with what we’ve learned, then we’ve wasted our time and money.

The wall we hit is the limited human capacity to change. We can only change so many habits at a time. Trying to force ourselves to lose weight, quit smoking, keep our e-mail caught up, and give a bit of positive feedback to every employee all at the same time, we are doomed to failure. We would be better off choosing the one thing that’s most important to us and just working on it until it becomes part of daily routine. Then choosing the next most important one, and working on it.

How long does it take to learn a new habit (or unlearn an old one)? The current research tells us about three months for the big things like quitting smoking, losing weight, or becoming competent at a complex skill like managing our time. That seems like a lot, and it is. If we try to rush things, however, we’ll just have to start over again later. Or give up and feel guilty about or inability to improve our lives.

Be patient. We can learning faster by doing, and we can go faster by slowing down.

So what’s the best way turn a good idea from a book, conference, course, webinar, blog, podcast, lunch-and-learn, or other learning into action? When I got sent on a training or conference  or read a book, I liked to find the one good idea. Then I would take that one good idea and summarize it on a sticky note. The sticky note went up on my monitor, and I would do something towards making that learning reality every day. After about two weeks the concept, process, or habit became ingrained in my daily routine, or it didn’t. With this focus on implementing a single good idea and reminding myself of it on a continuous basis I had a success rate of about 60%. Without it, I was able to succeed 0% of the time.

If it’s a really good book, course, etc., I set up a reminder in three months to go back and review my notes or re-read the book. Then I can pick out the next best thing to implement, and repeat. If I totally failed, then revisiting the source material would help me get re-inspired about making the change. Sometime I even decided that, no, that was a stupid idea after all, and I moved on.

It’s tough at first, but you’ll get better at it. It’s kind of like compound interest – the better you get at learning and executing, the better you get at executing and learning.

Bernie works with small, medium (and sometimes) large companies, start-ups, and volunteer organizations to help them set a vision that is executable, effective, and to surround themselves with people who will help them succeed. I believe the workplace is a place to thrive, not just survive. Call me if you want help transforming your business.