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There’s an old saying: “In theory, there’s no difference between theory and practice, but in practice, there is.” I often think about this quote when I collect yet another theory. I have a whole bunch of them.
For some reason, I’m drawn to theories: abstract explanations that bring order, sense, and predictability to confusing, chaotic, or otherwise unclear situations. I collect them like some people collect Pokemon cards.
Why is it worthwhile?
Theories can be helpful. Few things are truly new. Someone probably already thought through the forces, dependencies, and constraints affecting situations similar to whatever mess you’re dealing with.
If it’s a recurring situation, there are likely patterns that apply to all instances. Knowing the patterns helps you make sense of things so you can respond appropriately.
A good theory gives you useful models. Different frameworks can provide direction so you’re no longer dealing with an unstructured mess. For example, jobs-to-be-done theory helps you think about products and services in a more user-centered way than the alternatives.
A good theory has explanatory power. Knowing “this happened because of that” and “if this happens, you can expect that” can help you predict the outcomes of certain choices. For example, dietary theories predict dire health consequences from eating lots of sugary foods.
A good theory is generative. Having a framework to think about a situation will help you explore its boundaries and opportunities, empowering you to design more effective interventions. For example, aggregation theory helps you do better business in the context of the internet.
Of course, you can’t know everything about the situation perfectly. But a good theory enables you to at least make some sound assumptions — or at least ones that aren’t wholly wacko.
In short, theories help you reason better.
But, you may wonder, if theory is so great, why does it have a bad reputation? Sometimes, I hear people say things like “that may be true in theory, but…” or “that sounds very academic,” or “get your head out of the clouds.”
Some folks assume theory is a bad thing. That’s because having a theory isn’t enough: for things to change, you must act. And many people subconsciously conflate knowing and doing.
There’s a risk in thinking that just thinking about a situation is doing something about it. Theory gives you a sense of agency, but it’s misleading: knowledge that doesn’t change your actions amounts to trivia.
And once you act, you may discover the theory isn’t perfect. There are outliers and confounders; your situation may not map precisely to the theory; the theory might be too general or too specific.
Whatever the case, you can’t assume the theory is infallible. (That would make you an ideologue.) It’s merely a way of thinking about the situation, one that hopefully helps you act more skillfully.
You’ll only know by trying it and tracking outcomes. Did things turn out as the theory predicted? Did you do something that deviated from the model? (It’s ok to do so – just be aware you’re doing it.) Testing a theory’s applicability is key to its usefulness.
Contrary to what the clever quote says, in theory there are significant differences between theory and practice. Having a good theory is much better than acting randomly. Having more than one helps you expand your thinking.
But that’s never enough: the point of a theory is to put it into practice.