Practical Implementation of Abstract Theory

Thom Dworak and I have been partnered up for a few years with our Growing Adaptive Thinking workshops for police command, supervisors, and trainers. One of our biggest struggles has been in balancing abstract theory with practical implementation. 

Take a quick look at one (1) of the topic lists we compiled during such a 3-day workshop:

I've long believed that the future of human development (ie: "training") is in concept- or principle-based learning strategies. This means that classrooms discuss a limited set of overarching or universal theories that apply to the broadest set of circumstances as possible, rather than a long list of narrowly applied "if-then" types of rules. 

With that, I also believe that our students and learners have been conditioned through formal schooling, sports team practices, and workplace training to ignore much of the abstract and underlying theory for the efficiency of simply learning the standardized procedures or methods.

Simon Sinek has been one (1) of the most recognizable flag bearers for The Why. To me, The Why includes those fundamental, universal, generalist, unbending concepts or mental models that drive the more concrete How. The Why can be fluffy and hard to grasp...and very hard to teach. Yet that's where I tend to spend my time in educational settings.

In our workshops, we are continually faced with questions that sound like:

"OK, I get it. But how do we apply all this to what we do as police <insert role here> in our departments?" 
In essence, they want to know The How. The methods. The step-by-step instructions. The checklist. The instructional manual.

And that frustrates me because I don't want to tell them how to do it or apply it. I want them to experiment and tinker with the applications and implementation much like I've done for a decade. I also don't want to limit our students in their thought! I want them to discover new ways to implement and apply these ways Thom and I have not.

Sure I can tell stories about how my agency has adopted the theories. How we implement theories of:
But those experiences might not transfer over to another agency that is smaller, bigger, younger, older, aggressive, timid, more/less political, or any other number of cultural traits it might have.

Is it possible to re-condition our learners to appreciate abstract theory? If so, should we? Or should we give them what they want: practical implementation of method?

I fear if we give too much method, we lose the appreciation for principle. But I also fear that with too much theory, we send off our students without actionable steps to take in their respective organizations.

Abstract theory holds true regardless of context. That's why I find so much value in it. These underlying rules form a basis for everything we implement. In doing so, we give our people timeless guidelines to which they can work within and adapt to fresh situations and contexts as they arise.

Otherwise, we are simply replacing one (1) checklist with another. And we know how that goes...


Lou Hayes, Jr. is a supervisor in a suburban Chicago police department. With a passion for training, he studies human performance & decision-making, creativity, emotional intelligence, and adaptability. Follow Lou on Twitter at @LouHayesJr or on LinkedInHe also maintains a LinkedIn page for The Illinois Model.


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