24 Oct 2023
by Frank Zaccari

Theory vs. Reality

After 4 years in the military, I graduated from college full of ideas, theories, and best practices. Then I entered the world and discovered there is Theory and then there is Reality. This raised the question is intelligence or imagination more important for success?

Theory is how things should be. Reality is how things are. Theory says follow the established best practices. Reality says best practices are a point in time - they are not gospel. History is littered with organizations who religiously followed their best practice all the way to extinction (Western Electric, Blockbuster, Sun Microsystems, etc.).

Theory says follow the tried-and-true methods. Reality says what we should be looking for is the next practice that differentiates us from the herd. The most successful organizations challenge the best practice. They say, “What if we did this?” and then surround themselves with people who have been where they want to go.

Intelligence, education, and theory are important. After all, those who choose to ignore history will often make the same mistakes over and over.

My best education, however, did not occur in school. I was military medic. A 20-year-old E-4 (that is three stripes for non-military people). I had just finished an assignment and had a meeting with my Chief Master Sergeant and the Colonel who was the hospital commander. They said to me, “We want you to run the pediatric clinic.” This clinic saw 90 sick children a day and the medical doctor in charge was not the easiest person to be around.

Being in the military, I said, “With all due respect, doesn’t this position usually go to someone with a higher rank?” They both acknowledge it did but said, “We believe you can do it.” I then asked, “Again, with all due respect did none of them want this job?” The Colonel laughed and said “That too, but we believe you can handle this role. Oh, and by the way you have no staff, but don’t panic. We have set up a meeting with the Red Cross to get volunteers to work with you.”

My thoughts were this is a losing proposition. A difficult doctor, 90 sick children and their parents and volunteers are my only staff! My Chief said, “Here is your challenge sergeant, these are volunteers. They don’t have to come back or show up or even give you a reason. You must train them on why we do what we do, how we are going get things done and what you are going to do to support them.” No pressure there, right?

Within six months we had a waiting list of volunteers who wanted to work in the pediatric clinic. At 20 years old I had to learn how to build processes, collaborate with volunteers, delegate roles/procedures to insure 90 sick children as well as their often scared and frustrated parents received the best possible experience.

Why was this my best education? Because I had to find ways to work with a large bureaucracy that makes it nearly impossible to get things done. This is not limited to the military. We see the same situation in corporate America, in academia, in government at all levels, and as business owners. At times, we must become like Radar, from the television show M.A.S.H. and use our imagination to get the job done.

How did this work post military. After college, I worked for a high-tech company and was assigned to compete for multi-million-dollar projects. This required proposing complete solutions. My company only made equipment, so I drew upon my military experience to attract the necessary components such as database, network, digital communication, and industry experts.  I had to convince them why they should work with my plan, how we would build the processes and procedures and what was needed for us to win.

We created a two-tier program. We had people who were tasked with identifying and quickly qualifying an opportunity. For the lack of a better name, we called them “bird dogs.” Their job was to get the bird in the air. The second tier was the “Tiger Team” which were the people with the expertise to execute the plan. We secure several major projects across multiple states.

Intelligence and knowing the best practice mattered, but using our imagination created the next practice that led to success. As the great philosopher Mike Tyson once said: “Everyone has a plan until you get punched in the mouth.”