What good is theory, anyway?

Ah, theory. Both the bane of my existence and the subject of my master’s thesis (yes, I’m a glutton for punishment). While I’ve learned to parse it, criticize it, and lit review it to death, my first reaction to theory is always to ask: How can this be applied to the real world?

When you encounter a theory—whether it’s in the form of academic research, a model, a framework, etc.—it’s often presented as an idealized form. It’s clean, it’s simple, it makes complete sense… on paper. Once you start applying it to the messy, complex realities of your organization, however, one of three things can happen.

First, you can continue to insist that the model is correct and apply it without considering your organization’s context, square-peg-round-hole style. Second, you see the model as such a mismatch to your reality that you discount it out of hand… and from there, you make it up as you go along. Third, and most sensibly, you can use a model as a useful starting point, and adapt it as you see fit.

So why bother with theory? Here’s how I (an admittedly theory-ambivalent practitioner) have found theory useful in helping frame my design thinking work.

 

Theory can…

Be a useful starting point. Theory can help ground you and provide a framework for thinking through a problem. This is good news: You don’t have to start from scratch! But theory doesn’t work in a vacuum, and it need not be taken as gospel. As a practitioner you should absolutely consider your organizational context and adapt the model as needed. From there, you can bounce between reality and theory as a way of testing your ideas.

Serve as reinforcement for an evidence-based approach. When you’re setting yourself up to make decisions based on evidence, organizational realities (observations, data, interviews, etc.) are some of the most important sources of insight. But theory also has a place in making your case. Those of us who work with scientists may find this especially useful for getting buy-in; published research from a PhD at another institution is sometimes (apparently) more believable than the expertise that exists within your own organization. If it helps grease the wheels of progress, just roll with it.

Point you to more diverse points of view. Because theories are, by their very nature, an abstraction, they can sometimes be useful in more than one realm. Looking to theories outside of your discipline can help expand and generate new ways of thinking. Again, you may not be able to take the model exactly as it’s presented… but that’s okay.

 

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