Theory versus practice – a lesson from the ancients

by Shaun R Smith on January 5, 2010

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I was watching NOVA over the weekend, and they have a series called “Secrets of Lost Empires.”  The series basically looks at mysteries of the ancient world.  The first two episodes that I watched were about how the Egyptians erected obelisks and how the inhabitants of Easter Island erected the moai.

How does this relate to business?  The point of this series, it seems, is to figure out how these ancients achieved these amazing feats through actually trying to do it ourselves.  NOVA assembles a team of experts and limits them to use only the technology that would have been available to the people of the time.  For example, in the case of the Egyptians, we have a good sense of the level of mathematics, engineering and materials they had at their disposal.  So NOVA’s team of engineers, Egyptologists, and builders must erect an obelisk using the same technology.  While the ancients erected obelisks of one solid piece of stone that weighed as much as 500 tons!, the NOVA team was tasked to erect a 30 ton obelisk.

What impressed me was that with all our technological, mathematical, and engineering advances, what worked on paper never worked in real life – or at least not as elegantly as it did on paper.  For example, one of the models to get the obelisk vertical was to build a wooden frame and lever system to tilt it into place (please watch the episode for full details).  I won’t give away the ending by telling you whether this system worked, but I will say that it wasn’t until they got out and DID IT with a really big stone (versus a 2 foot tall model) did the team really know what would happen.

The same thing is true in business (and other areas of life).  You can theorize and sketch things out to the minutest detail, but until you get into action and start implementing, you don’t know what’s going to work and what changes you need to make.  For business, planning can save you time and money.  It can help you make better decisions.  It can help you anticipate challenges and foresee opportunities.  But nothing beats execution.  Until you get out there and do it, you don’t know what will work.  I have never seen it work according to plan, so be ready to deal with the results you get and make the necessary changes to succeed.

So do your homework, be prepared, but don’t fall into analysis paralysis.  Get out there and ACT!

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