The heart of career (and business) paralysis

October 14, 2013, 5:09 PM UTC

FORTUNE — Many of us get stuck between wanting to act, and taking action. The uncertainty of the uncharted path ahead can be daunting. Sometimes it feels as if circumstances are conspiring against us, and we find ourselves riveted in place.

In corporate cultures, that hesitation can translate into what professors Bob Sutton and Jeffrey Pfeffer call the “knowing-doing gap:” the space between what we know we should do and what we actually do. The “knowing-doing gap” can lead to company paralysis when talk becomes a substitute for action.

After learning about the knowing-doing gap, we began to see it everywhere. For example we witnessed it first-hand at Eastman Kodak Company. On a cold spring day in the mid-1990s, an IDEO team travelled to Rochester, New York for an audience with the Kodak executive team. We found a group of leaders with deep expertise who at least intellectually understood that the future of photography was digital.

Looking back, business historians may be tempted to suggest that Kodak’s leadership was naïve. But that was not the case. In fact, we had to race to keep up with CEO George Fisher’s agile mind. And no one could say Kodak lacked knowledge of digital photography. They had actually invented the digital camera in 1975, and later pioneered the world’s first megapixel sensor. Kodak had a head start that should have yielded lasting advantage. So why didn’t all that knowledge and first-mover advantage turn into decisive action?

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For starters, tradition got in the way of innovation. Kodak’s glorious past was just too alluring. Kodak had essentially owned consumer photography for a hundred years, with market shares in some segments as high as 90%. By contrast, digital ventures all seemed so risky, and Kodak wasn’t providing enough “soft landings” for managers willing to take career risks in those new areas. Facing strong global competitors in the digital market, Kodak knew that it would struggle, and fear of failure transfixed the management team.

Caught in the knowing-doing gap, Kodak clung too closely to the chemistry-based business that had been so successful for them in the 20th century, under-investing in the digital world of the 21st. What we saw at Kodak was not a lack of information but the failure to turn insight into effective action. As a result, one of the most powerful brands in America lost its way.

No company that falls behind the competition is guilty of standing completely still. But sometimes our efforts fail because of the level of commitment to change. “I’ll try” can become a half-hearted promise of follow-through rather than decisive action. Stanford academic director Bernie Roth demonstrates this idea with a brief exercise that his students say delivers a lasting message. He holds out a water bottle and asks them to try to take it from him. Facing grey-haired Bernie, a 50-year veteran of the Stanford Design Program, students usually hesitate as they try to grab it from him. Their initial efforts yield nothing. His grasp just grows more ironclad as the strapping 20-year-olds and powerful CEOs try to wrestle the bottle away from the octogenarian.

Bernie then reframes the exercise. He says to stop trying and just do it — take it from him. The next person strides forward and successfully wrenches the bottle away. What changed? As Bernie explains it, a subtle excuse lies in the idea of “trying.” It’s as if today is for attempts, and the real action will happen at some vague future moment. To achieve your goal, to topple the barriers that stand in your way, you have to be focused on getting it done now. Or as Yoda, another wise-and-seasoned master, put it to Luke Skywalker in Star Wars, “Do or do not. There is no try.”

Many who have witnessed Bernie’s exercise took his message to heart. An editor for a prestigious international business journal who had struggled for years to find time for her true passion — writing fiction — was spurred to begin work in earnest on her new novel. A psychology professor planning to spend a year “gathering more information” on his research topic scrapped that plan and initiated a series of workshops to quickly prototype the final version of his work. And a computer graphics researcher who has been dabbling on and off with a music technology project switched from saying “one day …” to saying “today.” He wrote a proposal and met with an international development foundation that funds music initiatives.

Sometimes, despite the determination to jump in, the enormity of an important task can stop you in your tracks, especially at the beginning. Getting started can be hard. The writer faces the blank page; the teacher, the first day of school; businesspeople, the launch of a new project.

Bestselling writer Anne Lamott famously captures this idea in a childhood story from her popular book, Bird By Bird. Her 10-year-old brother had been assigned a school report about birds and hadn’t started on it until the night before it was due. “We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, ‘Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.’”

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We both summon that phrase “bird by bird” when confronted by an intimidating task, sometimes actually saying it out loud. Those three words remind us that, no matter how large the chasm, we can narrow the knowing-doing gap one step at a time.

In other words, to ultimately reach a creative breakthrough, you just need to start, regardless of small failures that may occur along the way. It’s unlikely that your first try at anything will be a success. But that’s okay. It’s hard to be “best” right away, so commit to rapid and continuous improvements. The messiness of such trial and error may seem uncomfortable at first, but action allows most of us to learn at a faster rate; it’s almost a prerequisite for success. Otherwise, the desire to be best can get in the way of getting better.

The following adapted excerpt comes from the book Creative confidence: Unleashing the Creative Potential Within Us All by Tom Kelley and David Kelley. Copyright 2013 by David Kelley and Tom Kelley. Published by Crown Business, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House LLC, a Penguin Random House Company.