Home > The Monday Musings Column > on theory versus practice

on theory versus practice

That title almost suggests a rivalry or conflict between the two, but they are complementary tools. A leader needs both and the more of each that they have the more effective their leadership should be. You can start with either, it really doesn’t matter which. The important thing is to keep a balance between the two. 

Theory is fine from the basic thought process through to detailed research. Taking time to consider why things work, or don’t work, is important. Reading, listening and discussing should be something that we all do so that we can understand out actions and the likely consequences of them. Continuous improvement is essential, but theory alone will not be enough.

As a practitioner you gain experience and that builds two things. One is that you can improve your judgement and, for some tasks, you will cease to consciously think about certain things and just do them automatically. Think about driving a car, operating a piece of equipment or playing an instrument. To begin with you are slow and jerky in how you do things, but, with practice, you just do them fluidly. The same applies to how you lead or manage as your experience makes some things instinctive in the way that you respond. The other thing that experience brings is that you can better understand the theory if you have done the job and being able to relate theory with the practice of doing. For some they will begin to contribute to and further develop that theory.

There are theorist who have never practiced and there are practitioners who have not studied theory. It isn’t a problem, but the better people in either discipline have experience of both fields and the marriage of both makes for the best results. From my own experience some of the worst people that I have had to work for have been stuck in one camp or the other and, if I had to choose, I would go for a practitioner every time for there is an element of truth in the old adage that those who can do and those who can’t teach.

One example comes to mind of a boss who was on an MBA course and at team meetings we would get to some point of planning and he would announce that he had just done that module on his course and, pulling the relevant binder off his bookshelf would regale us with its contents. Now there would be the odd nugget that we could use, and did, but most times he was not bright enough to spot the relevance and would go banging on past that point with all sorts of bullet points read verbatim off the page; he had no real idea of how to apply the knowledge let alone apply it to any good effect. The theorist at his worst.

Your abilities will evolve as you go along. You will learn from your mistakes and, better still, from the mistakes of others. If you also try and learn from your successes you can pool all of that and go read some theory to see where you can spot the joins; how much of your success and failure can you match with the theory. The correlation of these points of reference can help you improve through a better understanding of the theoretical side of what you do and a better understanding of why certain results come from your actions (or inactions).

It is not always easy as a practitioner to find the time to study, but it is worth finding some if for no other reason that the better you get at your job the more time you will find that you have. All too often you can find yourself firefighting issues and coping with re-working mistakes. These are the two biggest wastes of your time and as you get better they are the easiest things to fix. Use the time that this gives you to think further about what you do and how you can do it better is the best investment you can make in yourself.

It is not easy, but none of the good things are cheap. Something as worthwhile as this is worth working for. Give it a try, starting today.

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