Albert Einstein is credited with saying,“In theory, theory and practice are the same. In practice, they are not.” Yogi Berra agreed. Einstein is also credited with saying, “Information is not knowledge. The only source of knowledge is experience.” Here’s another: “Those who can, do; those who cannot, teach.”
The difference between practical and theoretical can also be summarized by the understanding that theoretical describes something that should work but doesn’t, and practical describes something that works even though we might not know how. That difference becomes evidence in the many hiccups that disturb and derail the best-laid plans and processes. Scottish poet Robert Burns said it best: “The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry” (translated from Scots).
Scott Adams’ comic strip Dilbert often satirizes the disassociation of executives and managers with the actual work necessary to achieve project success. Incompetence disguised within meaningless buzzwords draw snickers of bitter laughter from those who empathize with Dilbert’s circumstance. No plan of action or strategy is likely to succeed unless the solutions used to attain the outcome are feasible. Lofty goals may inspire; however, they are more likely to discourage because no one likes knowing he or she will almost certainly fail.
Because government agencies make an easy target for ridicule, we’ll use this real life example to demonstrate a relevant problem. The senior manager of a government agency completed and submitted a request form to procure equipment needed for engineers to perform their jobs. The request was denied because he had not submitted the proposed new request form that was not yet available for use. The process to track and management real expenditures failed utterly because the solution–a system of requests and approvals–did not work in practice.
Empirical conditioning often resonates more clearly and teaches better than theoretical reasoning. After all, learning to drive safely in wintery conditions requires actual time spent on the road driving in wintery conditions. No amount of theory or verbal explanation substitutes for the feel of tires sliding across ice.
For a less seasonal example, consider a recipe. A recipe is basically a strategy. The outcome of a feasible strategy is well-prepared food. The strategy for preparing the food lists ingredients (resources) and the actions (process) to be followed in order to achieve the desired result. Sometimes, resources may be substituted, such as cocoa and butter for baker’s chocolate. Other times, substitution of resources leads to disastrous results. (Cloves and a clove of garlic are not the same and impart radically different flavors.) Sometimes an unavailable ingredient may be left out without much impact. Other times the lack of a key ingredient ruins the dish. Therefore, before beginning the process of preparing a particular dish, the cook must first ascertain whether he or she has the necessary ingredients and the right equipment. If certain ingredients or utensils or appliances are not available, then the recipe cannot be followed because the expectations for success are not realistic.
Once you determine a feasible strategy, you can improve upon it. Returning to our government agency, improvement of the strategy simply lies with making the correct form available for use as specified within the process. Returning to our recipe, the combination of flavors of the food may inspire a companion dish or alteration of the recipe that elevates the meal from prosaic to exquisite.
Pragmatism may not be sexy, but it works. That which works consistently achieves predictable results. Predictable results form the foundation for written processes that can guide others to the same results.
Form follows function. Necessity is the mother of invention. Think outside the box. Those truisms drown amid mistaken perceptions that creativity must mean abandoning pragmatism because the prosaic cannot exist with creativity.
For what it’s worth, I like boxes. They’re enormously useful and practical. I also think that constraints refine and temper creativity. They force thinkers to consider the ramifications and feasibility of their ideas. Anyone, after all, can be creative when the sky’s the limit.
No creative endeavor exists without limitations, whether those be limitations of media, budget, size, deadline, use, or something else. An artist is limited by the size of his canvas and the medium in which he works. A musician is limited by the range of notes that can be played and heard on an instrument. After all, who writes music only dogs can hear? An actor is limited by the script and the director’s instructions. A writer is limited by the page and language. An architect is limited by the building’s purpose, the construction site, zoning laws, and the client’s budget and preferences. A programmer is limited by the project budget, user expertise, and software.
Various methods exist for directing and honing creative processes. One such method is value analysis, which has a codified HOW-WHY progression that breaks down a process, project, or product into discrete, verb-noun combinations that reduce to abstraction whatever is being analyzed. In that manner, the analyst focuses on the solution to a certain objective without being hemmed in by preconceived notions. The process of value analysis can result in amazing, innovative breakthroughs or it can be used with ruthless focus on cost-cutting.
The emphasis on practical solutions keeps in mind that whatever results from the innovation must be used or operated by people. Innovation without regard to those who must live with the implementation foments resentment and confusion and a general dislike of change. Innovation necessarily disrupts comfort, which no one likes. If you’re going to make someone uncomfortable, it’s best to show that the advantages of such discomfort outweigh the negatives.
In their article “An Easy Way to Increase Creativity,” Oren Shapira and Nira Liberman assert that psychological distance increases creativity: “psychological distance affects the way we mentally represent things, so that distant things are represented in a relatively abstract way while psychologically near things seem more concrete.” In other words, problems that seem further away are easier to solve.
In a personal manner, that holds true. Consider advice columnists. Don’t they usually have the advantage of distance, so they can clearly see, analyze, and resolve the problems affecting those seeking their advice?
The premise of methods like value analysis and psychological distance to improve creativity lie in abstraction. By thinking in abstract terms of a problem and how it might be resolved, one releases preconceived notions to generate ideas for evaluation. Such abstraction forces one to define the problem to be solved. In his article “5 Steps to Developing an Innovative Solution to a Problem,” Ryan May states that the first step in innovation involves asking probing questions and digging for insight. That can be as simple as asking “what does that company do better than ours?” or “what’s missing from our product that would make it better?”
Once you’ve defined the problem to be solved, it must be analyzed from every angle to generate ideas on how to solve it. The next step focuses on evaluating those ideas for feasibility, expense, time, durability, and other factors usually imposed by the client. For instance, pure gold doesn’t corrode, but making fixtures in 24-carat gold for yachts and oceanfront houses isn’t practical due to gold being too soft a metal and far too expensive for such use. However, a thin coat of gold on the steel base uses the best of both metals: steel’s strength and gold’s resistance to corrosion. Electroplating gold to steel fixtures adds to the cost, but not so prohibitively that homeowners dismiss the option out of hand. It’s less expensive than having to replace all the fixtures every few years.
The crucible of requirements and limitations refines creativity to fulfill a purpose for feasible implementation. Practicality doesn’t bore, it challenges. Are you up to the challenge?
Although prototyping has manufacturing connotations associated with product development, it applies to business processes. Business analysts who subscribe to the BABOK can impress their colleagues with knowledge of 34 techniques to “identify, describe, and validate user interface needs.” Prototypes reveal business requirements, confirm business requirements, and unveil areas of conflict
Prototyping can be accomplished by the simple means of putting pencil to paper or using sophisticated, computer-based tools to calculate percentages and assign budgets. Regardless of the means of producing the prototype, the goal remains the same: deliver the prototype to stakeholders and collect their feedback. Use that feedback, which should include both criticisms and suggestions for improvement, to adjust the prototype so that it becomes the process, service, or product that best serves the purpose for which it was designed.
The decision of when prototyping best serves your purpose depends upon the complexity of the problem to be solved. Some very complex problems and most very simple problems do not lend themselves well to prototyping. Simple prototypes work best to stimulate discussion, more complicated ones map out the solution to the problem you’re working to solve and can be adapted to accommodate changes in scope or direction.
Sudden changes in scope or misalignment of stakeholder expectations can doom a prototype. Management of stakeholder expectations becomes crucial, or the prototype cannot address the original problem. Avoid getting bogged down in the little details. Like a map doesn’t show every hill and ditch, an effective prototype shows the main path on how to get from point A to point B. Include only what is required to achieve the desired results.
Creative Bloq describes three different approaches to prototyping: magic design, limited fantasy, reality-based design.
“Magic design” ignores reality. It presents the “pie in the sky” goal that disappoints because either the technology doesn’t exist, the skills aren’t available, or the budget is too small to attain that lofty goal promised by salesmen. The refusal to allow reality to limit creativity translates into poor design that doesn’t fulfill expectations. When one creates a product or process that must work in the real world, then reality must, perforce, limit ambitions.
“Reality-based design” works firmly within the constraints of current technology, current ability, current understanding. It often creates useful, pragmatic solutions, but aspires to nothing more. It meekly accepts the limits imposed. Creativity does not flourish here.
“Limited fantasy” works well within the constraints of the medium. It pushes the envelope, but doesn’t expand so far beyond it that achievement always hovers out of reach. This harnesses the power and ambition of creativity to the workhorse of practicality to result in innovative thinking and new solutions. This type of prototype can simulate novel and difficult-to-implement technologies
The importance of a prototype lies within its ability to guide development. It cannot guide development without a thorough understanding of the available resources and demands for performance. That understanding arises from analysis of the tasks to be performed, goals to be achieved, and products to be manufactured.