Got Gaps? Build Bridges

William Sommers

Jorge Sciupac

How about a new acronym for GAPS.  GAPS: Good Alternatives Produce Success.

There is a great deal of talk about gaps between what we want and what we got. This quote is attributed to many people, ‘if you always do what you did, you always get what you got.’ The continual polarization in our country allows news outlets, alarmists, and pessimists to make a lot of money and keep our attention diverted.

We also learned that “what got us here won’t get us there” from our own experience and from the milestone book by Marshall Goldsmith. There is a different gap between where we are and where we want to be. And these gaps need new maps.  Relying on past successes and solutions may not be effective as the environment changes.

When an either/or path is followed, there is a winner and usually a loser.  An alternative is a both/and approach.  Popularized by Barry Johnson (1992), Polarity Management produced strategies to reduce the gap of one way or the other to how do we get the best from two good options. Barry has updated his work in the book ‘AND’ (2020) with current issues.

An example from education is content acquisition (measured by testing) and learning process skills (measured by psychological safety and learning cultures).  The rush to increase test scores left more students and staff behind.  Current business literature points to having talented people feel free to suggest creative solutions, work collaboratively with diverse employee groups, and sharing what works and what doesn’t with everyone.  We call this the reverse Las Vegas Effect.  If it works, tell everybody.  If it doesn’t work, tell everybody.

As Richard Sheridan (2018) said, “Fear does not make bad news go way. Fear makes bad news go into hiding.” Amy Edmondson (2019) wrote Fearless Organizations.  She has done great research on creating psychological safety in the workplace.  This goes for non-profits as well as businesses. So, to get the best thinking from individuals and teams, creating a culture of learning and respect will be even more important in the future.  Both non-profits and business, in order to attract and retain talent, will be required to create a safe, learning-filled culture.

“Knowledge is Important AND Insufficient.” (Sommers).  Yes, we need to learn more information. AND, implementation is where the rubber meets the roads.  Being smart, content wise, is not enough to navigate future challenges.

This is particularly relevant in today’s world, where accelerating changes make our models obsolete in no time. Information is becoming a commodity available from multiple sources. More than a “set of truths,” what we need is new maps that are dynamic and flexible. More than education we need a “Learning Paradigm” that is adaptable to twists and turns.

The updated resource ‘AND’ by Barry Johnson (2020) provides a strategy that can help deal with the mounting polarities.  First, decide whether the issue is a problem to solve or a polarity to manage. His newest books have examples from politics, diversity issues, and personal differences. Here are two examples from education:

There were 350 student parking spaces at a high school. There were 700 requests for a parking permit.  The principal did not have the funds nor the desire to spend tax dollars on an additional parking lot.  This is a problem to solve.  Put the 700 names in a hat, draw 350.  They get permits.  Students and parents continued to call trying to get a permit.  Can’t give what you don’t have.  A problem solved (not to everyone’s satisfaction).

At another school a new principal found that 15% of the staff would be retiring at the end of the year.  One way to view this problem is to hire lower cost, less experienced staff.  Another way is to recruit more experienced staff to replace those retiring.  The answer is both/and.

The positives of hiring less experienced staff might be new technology applications, energy to be coaches and advisors, and more willing to try new learning strategies.  The downside might be less experienced staff do not have the connections to the community, might try things that have little chance of success, and are impulsive.

Bringing in more experienced staff that has knowledge from working with many students, can mentor less experienced staff, and has experience in dealing students and parents.  The downside is experienced staff are less likely to want to spend many hours coaching, advising, etc.  They are also less willing to try new ideas since what they have been doing generally works and can be technologically averse.

The answer is bring-in a mix of professionals from both sides to get the positive contribution from each group. Watch for any negatives that might arise and deal with possible conflicts.  See ways to elevate professional development from a post ‎

Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert Sutton (2000) at Stanford University wrote The Knowing-Doing Gap: How Smart Companies Turn Knowledge into Action. They posit five elements that may be present when this gap exists.

Here are the five elements that play out in real time:

  1. When Talk Substitutes for Action
  2. When Memory Is a Substitute for Thinking
  3. When Fear Prevents Acting on Knowledge
  4. When Measurement Obstructs Good Judgment
  5. When Internal Competition Turns Friends into Enemies

A short summary of this book exists at ‎

When Talk Substitutes for Action. This is classic in organizations.  McGannon said, ‘leadership is action, not position.’  Talk is useless if not followed through with actions.

When Memory Is a Substitute for Thinking. You hear, “we tried that before and it didn’t work.”  What did we learn from that initiative?  Has anything changed since that initiative was tried? Is there different staff with different skills?

When Fear Prevents Acting on Knowledge.  Remembering one of W. Edwards Deming’s tenets, ‘without a safe place, ideas will stay hidden.’

When Measurement Obstructs Good Judgment.  You might think that firms would recognize the commonsense wisdom expressed in a line from Otis Redding’s song “Sitting by the Dock of the Bay” on the need for fewer, focused measurements: “Can’t do what ten people tell me to do, so I guess I’ll remain the same.” Measuring sales at the expense of relationships may not be a long-term success indicator.

When Internal Competition Turns Friends into Enemies. Motivation has been studied by Herzberg (2008), Pink (2009), and Deci (1995), (to name few).  Motivation is key to individual success which will drive organizational success.  Learn what others do and improve it. “Internal competition makes it even more difficult for people to put knowledge into action and to learn from each other.

So, what are some ways to ‘Bridge the Gaps, connect yourself with others?’ A bridge is a structure that both recognizes the existence of the gap and provides a way to have a two-way flow between the polarities. A bridge connects two sides, two ideas, and engages different perspectives to a better future.

Turning Knowledge into Action.  The following quotes are from the Knowing Doing Gap and capture why action is so important.

 “CEO David Kelley likes to say that “enlightened trial and error outperforms the planning of flawless intellects.”

“There is no doing without mistakes.  What is the company or non-profits’ response?”

“Clayton Christensen: “What companies need is a forgiveness framework, and not a failure framework, to encourage risk-taking and empower employees to be thinking leaders rather than passive executives.”

Bridging the GAP connects yourself with others, releases and multiplies energy, and accelerates learning. Build bridges not walls.


Edmondson, Amy. (2019). The Fearless Organization. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons

Johnson, Barry.  (1992).  Polarity management.  Amherst, MA:  HRD Press, Inc.

Johnson, Barry. (2020). And: Making a Difference by Leveraging Polarity, Paradox or Dilemma. Volume One.  Sacramento, CA: Polarity Partnerships.

Pfeffer, Jeffrey and Sutton, Robert I.  (2000).  The Knowing-Doing Gap: How Smart Companies Turn Knowledge into Action.  Boston: Harvard Business School Press.

Sheridan, Richard. (2013).  Joy, Inc.  New York:  Penguin

Sheridan, Richard. (2018). Chief Joy Officer.  New York: Portfolio/Penguin

Sommers, William.  Certified Polarity Partnership Consultant


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