The Theorist and the Practitioner

It feels like theory precedes practice, but the opposite is true. Theory follows practice.

It’s not uncommon for people to believe that a new theory is generated, and then that new theory is put into practice, and new and better results are generated. This is exactly backwards. The practice comes first, and then the theory is generated to provide that practice with a concept, a structure, and a set of rules.

Look at something like The Challenger Sale. The idea that salespeople create value by challenging their dream clients with an insight that allows the client to break through their present thinking and discover a reason to change was a not a theory that was converted into a practice. Instead, it was what some salespeople were doing to succeed in creating and winning new opportunities. Only later was the idea codified so that is could be shared with other salespeople. (Watch this YouTube video on why I believe The Challenger Sale is one of the most important books on sales in the last two decades).

While the theorists often get attention and the accolades, it’s the practitioners who are doing the real work of discovery. It’s the practitioner who grabs the machete and hacks a path through the jungle. The practitioner is the one sitting in front of customers making observations about what works, what doesn’t work, and making the adjustments that allow them to create and win new opportunities. It’s the practitioner who wins or loses, succeeds or fails.

The person that provides the map of the terrain and the person that hacked the path are not often the same person. A practitioner would share with you what they know and believe about their map, and the theorist would explain why the map is correct. Another practitioner would show you a different way, and another theorist would happily explain to you how it is the right map. The theorist may have never seen the actual terrain.

Theory is necessary, but not sufficient when it comes to producing better results. It provides a map, a useful tool for understanding the terrain. But if you want someone to guide you through the jungle, you might also be served by a practitioner, someone who as actually seen the terrain for themselves, and someone whose experience allows them to intuit what the right choices are when you run into trouble.

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