brainFor a long time now there has been a theory that direct usefulness of a business process is more valuable for people than theoretical concepts. And yet, we have had three instances recently that argue that for many people, particularly executives,  this isn’t true. It seems that they prefer theory over practical advice. For example, a historical review of the NY Times Business Best seller list shows that most books that make and sustain their places on the list are research books, promoting theoretical models of organizations. These are books written by Jim Collins, Dan Pinks and Health Brothers which are excellent summaries of research, but have very little specific instructions on how to implement their conclusions. We’ve also noticed that blogs that are more theoretical regularly outperform practical and conversational blogs. Most Harvard Business Review (HBR) blogs, for instance, are written by academics and consultants and usually regurgitate conventional wisdom. Our own blog, moved from a more conversational and practical approach to more theoretical and as a result, page views dramatically increased. It would appear that theoretical consistently outperforms practical. We think there is one primary reason for this. Theoretical information gives people the sense that they are progressing without actually requiring them to do anything. Theory is far less demanding of action and therefore a lot less risky. People can gain insight from a theory, talk about it knowledgeably, convince themselves they are progressing, but then they don’t really have to do anything. For example, we were working with a high-tech company whose executives loved Dan Pinks’ work on motivation. They gave their internal learning organization a goal to create a program to implement Motivation 3.0. As it turns out, what they really wanted was a one hour online tutorial about motivation. They loved the theory, but didn’t want to do any of the work associated with it. We worked with another company that became enamored with the “Five Dysfunctions of a Team.” Everyone was talking about it. When we asked, “what are you doing differently?” we got only blank stares. While insight from theory can be useful there is clearly what you might call a “theory-to-action” barrier, similar to “Pfeffer’s Knowing Doing Gap.” It’s very easy to read and think about a theory — it makes you feel good. However, it is a lot harder to actually convert that theory into action. As a result, we are going to go with theory in our blog. But, what do you really want — theory or practical advice? We are interested in your comments.]]>

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