Theory Is Where You Start, Art Is Where You End

I recently had an interesting conversation with the MD of a large listed IT company about the tricky mix of art and theory utilised in managing a business.  His assertion was that good business dictated a solid and consistent dollop of “art” i.e. feel, intuition and judgement. To be more specific no amounts of “generic theory” as he put it, could provide the needed insight to meander through the subtleties of business decision making.  Context counts and seemly identical decisions will have different outcomes given the circumstances in which the business finds itself. Tools and theory are too static and unintelligent to deal with the idiosyncrasies of complex business life and thus offer marginal value at best. Taken to the extreme his view suggested that too much theory ran the risk of blunting softer skills over time making teams less effective.  I agree with him in part.

This may seem an odd admission for a growth strategist who utilises tools and theory as key part of applying his trade. One of the insights I have gleaned through my CIG work is how companies selling very similar products, services, technologies embedded within identical business models think and operate their business’ in different ways. Values and operating habits cultivated over time dictate how they view challenges, what decision making criteria they prioritise, what performance they validate, how they recognise and evaluate opportunities etc. The nature of the challenges may be archetypally similar but that’s often where it ends.  If companies face unique sets of obstacles, how then can theory impart value?

My experience is that theory if relevant and applied correctly improves the manner in which teams frame, diagnose, understand, discuss and solve problems.  One of the challenges management teams have is dealing with the multiple challenges simultaneously spanning varying levels of complexity and relatedness.  Theoretical frameworks thus offer an inroad into a problem by making teams explicitly aware of the constructs that need to be incorporated or at least considered as well as their relational interactions.  This in my experience both widens and deepens the level of discussion producing better quality thinking and associated outputs. More importantly, when incorporated within the context of the business’ incumbent operational and strategic posture, theoretical frameworks and tools often provision a wider array of contradictions and paradoxes.  The very stuff where the “art of business” is needed most.

I believe that theory needs to be used as a guide and not a master. Theory is where you start, art is where you end. Furthermore value derived is often a value of:

  1.  The level of abstraction you operate at – are you trying to redefine a tactical process or evaluate the barriers to overcoming  the complexities in growing market share
  2. The specificity of the theory being deployed – Having the smarts to apply and adapt a framework(s) to the subtitles at play
  3. What you are hoping to achieve by using it – Get the answer or help explore options
  4. The experience of the practitioner – Same tool + different practitioner  = different outcome
  5. The natural thinking style of the cumulate team – Some teams revel in the safety of structured thinking and some rebel. Different teams wrestling a similar problem with the same tool will deliver quite different options

As stated in a mail last week theoretical frameworks and tools are there to demystify and structure complexity, facilitate understanding, sharpen our thinking helping us make better decisions more often. I don’t believe theory in whatever form will ever replace the “art of business”, but rather make its application more directed.  Notwithstanding the title of this post there is an equally compelling argument for – Art is where you start, theory is where you end and therein lays the beauty!