"In theory there is very little difference between theory and practice; in practice there's a hell of a lot of difference."
I wrote this line 15 years ago after spending a year in a major university’s B-school dean’s office. I discovered that in just a few short months, I was becoming absorbed in the miasma that clouds the thinking of otherwise intelligent and decent people. Just like our current president is discovering, theoretical situations are fine for learning in the abstract, but then the real world encroaches on things; the idealized solutions are woefully inadequate without the context of relevant, real world experience.
Engineering school taught us to solve complex problems with elegant solutions, but those solutions were based on some idealized assumptions: pulleys had no friction; ropes were inextensible (didn’t stretch); and so forth. Conditions were repeatably linear and predictable, thus yielding to neat mathematical solutions. Then we hit the real world.
I ran into it even sooner, in graduate school, when my thesis project ran afoul of one of those real world solutions: a “discontinuity” which upset all of the nice, neat mathematical solutions. Some silly designer had installed a “backstop” to keep the reed valves I was studying from opening too far and over-stressing themselves. The solution worked, as did the reed valves, and their life was extended to make them a reliable part of an outboard engine. We were tasked to do a computerized model of the engine, using mathematical models.
The problem was that the neat theoretical (and mathematical) solutions only held true until they hit this “discontinuity,” and then the solutions fell apart, and models were meaningless, useless, and even grossly wrong. (We had to find an empirical solution!)
Such it is in life, and in business, and in politics. Theory teaches us how things should work, in a perfect world. Experience teaches us how they might -- or might not -- work, in an imperfect world. More importantly, experience prepares us to seek other inputs and different kinds of solutions, when the imperfections of the real world “bite us.”
I was reading an Op-Ed piece by Victor Davis Hanson titled “Experts are often short on real world experience." In it he wrote a couple of profound, and I believe accurate paragraphs:
“One constant here is equating wisdom with a certificate of graduation from a prestigious school. If, in the fashion of the sophist Protagoras, one writes that record cold proves record heat, or that record borrowing and printing money will create jobs and sustained economic growth, or that a 223-year-old Constitution is 100 years old and largely irrelevant, then credibility can be claimed only in the title or the credentials - but not the logic - of the writer.
America is huge and diverse, but the world of our credentialed experts is quite small, warped and monotonous - circumscribed largely by the prestigious university and an office in the incestuous Washington-New York corridor. There are plenty of prizes, honors and degrees among our policy setters and experts, but very little experience in running a business in Oklahoma, raising a large family in Kansas or working on an assembly line in Michigan, a military base in Texas, a boat in Alaska or a ranch in Idaho.”
This problem exists in business, in government, and in society at large. Dealing with it is not simple. Business schools teach students how to solve many vexing problems, but few of them teach how to deal with problem people and behavioral problems. Highly-educated professors -- many of whom are now involved with the business -- write brilliant case studies. The problem is that while “hindsight is 20/20,” foresight is not. Few business schools prepare graduates for the frightening uncertainty they face in the real-time, real world. Problems are not neat; they are messy. Time is too short for research and study. Decisions are not clear-cut; they are murky at best, and a choice between undesirable options at worst.
Only the “school of hard knocks” -- real world experience -- instills understanding about how to deal with the difference between theory and practice. We see it each day in government as elected officials who have never run anything, find themselves in charge of something large, bureaucratic, political, and very messy. If, for example, a president has previously been a governor of a large state, perhaps he would have encountered some of the messiness of the real world and learned how to deal with it. Regulators often regulate something they have never managed. When all of the experience is theoretical, mistakes are unavoidable and “on-the-job” fixes are all that’s left.
Professors who “profess” to know how things work can only judge by what they have heard, studied, or researched. Few of them have ever “been there, done that.” Unfortunately, that certainty borne of theory and intellect is exactly what Victor Davis Hanson was referring to.
Smart people are a great asset, but only when they realize the limits of their knowledge, and the perils of a lack of experience. Otherwise, they can be too smart for their own good. If they are in high corporate or elected positions, they are too smart for our own good, too. That is where the difference between theory and practice really becomes the difference between true effectiveness and serious mistakes.
John Mariotti is an internationally known executive and an award winning author. In his recent novel, The Chinese Conspiracy he merges an exciting fictional thriller with a factual reality of America’s risk from Cyber-Attacks. His last book, The Complexity Crisis, was one of 2008’s Best Business Books and also one of 2008’s Best Books for Small Business. Mariotti does Keynote speeches, serves on corporate boards and is a consultant/advisor to companies.