Theory In The Trenches

by Sharlyn Lauby on August 10, 2010

I’m starting to hear some conversation about the distinctions between knowing theory versus working in the trenches and discussions about practitioners versus consultants.  It’s got me thinking.  Honestly, I can’t figure out why there’s so much conversation about it.

Theories, whether they’re related to motivation, leadership or whatever, are important.  They offer some guidelines to figure out situations.  Even if a theory tells you what “not” to do…it’s valuable.  It’s important to know major theories.  But, that being said, theories can’t be the only thing you know to be successful in the business world.

That’s where working in the trenches or practical experience comes in.  This is where you put those theories to the test.  Working in the trenches is about execution.  In order to be successful, we must execute well.

Some people might argue that you can execute a strategy without knowing theory.  And that’s certainly true.  From my experience, I’ve found understanding theory helped me when I was thrown the curve ball.  When something unexpected happened, I used my theoretical knowledge to help me change my execution strategy.

Whether you’re a consultant or practitioner, you should know the theories related to your profession.  And you should know how to apply them.

IMHO, the difference between practitioners and consultants is where and when you apply knowledge.  In the traditional sense, practitioners work for a single organization and apply their knowledge every day in that organization’s culture.  Consultants do the same thing – they just have multiple companies and multiple cultures and apply their knowledge as they are engaged with a client company.

I’ve met plenty of practitioners who advise and consult with their internal clients.  And I know many consultants who work in the trenches with their client companies to get projects completed.

Regardless of your job title and who you work for, the two things important to your success are having the proper knowledge and possessing the proven ability to implement that knowledge.

Image courtesy of dbking

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Wally Bock August 10, 2010 at 11:27 am

Wonderful post, Bartender. I’m a fan of Michael Polanyi who held that we never truly know something (a theory, say) until we can use it to produce a result.

What I’ve often enjoyed in my consultant role is that often it’s what I don’t know about a client organization that makes me most valuable. I ask questions and that nudges the person who answers me to articulate things in ways that generate new ideas or understandings.

Sharlyn Lauby August 10, 2010 at 4:16 pm

Thanks for the comment Wally. I agree it’s great fun to learn more about client companies. And sometimes being an outsider with a fresh pair of eyes can be valuable.

Jeff Williams August 10, 2010 at 11:12 pm

Agree totally with what you are saying here. I’m the practitioner who occasionally works with consultants. The best consultants I’ve worked with pull from their experiences with multiple companies to bring me ideas and help me view my own company/challenges from a fresh, but proven, point of view.

Sharlyn Lauby August 11, 2010 at 3:53 pm

Thanks Jeff for the comment. Totally appreciate your POV. My clients really like the various experiences I’m able to share.

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