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.