Friday, March 23, 2001

Theory vs. Practice: "You can't cash a syllogism!"

Building a successful business takes practice. You have to learn the hard way: by doing, making mistakes, and redoing. Theory can be helpful, but true insight comes from the friction between planning and execution.

99.9% of business failures over the past year resulted from overemphasis on theory and underemphasis on practice.

A theorist believes that the world works based on a set of rules, that you can read those rules in a book or article, and that you can use those rules to design a successful business.

I call this the "Dungeons & Dragons" approach to business, and it's likely to be as successful in business as your average D&D player is in a singles bar.

The X-Files summed it up best when the slovenly hacker pulls himself up and says, "I didn't play all those years of D&D without learning something about courage!"--right before the camera shows him cowering and whimpering with fear.

That kind of second-hand knowledge is almost always useless; the rest of the time, it actually hurts your chances.

I'm not knocking education; as I've said before, I'm the product of the world's finest (and most expensive) institutions of higher learning. However, classes don't teach you how to run a business.

A practitioner may work with rules, but understands that rules were meant to be broken, and that the effectiveness of following any given rule is always in a state of flux.

The old rules were, "spend a ton of money to get big fast." Theorists who treated that law as immutable are now on a permanent vacation. Practitioners follow a rule as long as its clear that it still applies, but are willing to shed their prior beliefs and turn 90 degrees at a moment's notice.

I call this the "no-huddle" approach to business. You must always read your environment, and be ready to change your play, your formation, even your entire philosophy in less than 30 seconds. There's no time to huddle and call plays from a set script. Even if there was time enough, blindly executing a seven-step drop against a blitz formation is a recipe for disaster.

Yes, you're going to make mistakes. But a good entrepreneur, like a good quarterback, learns from those mistakes and instantly adjusts the offense for the next play, almost by instinct.

If you want to succeed in business, lay down the dice, forget about fighting orcs, and pick up a football. Besides, it'll be good for your complexion.


Ammar said...

Gotta make sure you see the "rules" the right way, too. Generally the "rules" are what worked in the past, they have no special sacredness. They're attempts to see what worked in the world and make them into a normative standard so that success can be copied. Again, nothing sacred, rules are just observations, like science. Good post!

Byron Woodson II said...

When traveling (business, love, hobbies, religion, etc.) the first rule is to realize that the map (theory) is not the continent (reality).