categories: innovation, leadership
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August 28th, 2008

by Bobby Gruenewald

28 comments (+ Add)

Theories vs. Ideas

I’m an idea guy. It’s one of the few things that I think I can do well. In addition to coming up with ideas, I love to implement them and see/measure the results. If you ask my team, I’m confident they would tell you I’m fairly impatient at seeing an idea go from concept to completion.

I get the opportunity to talk with some pretty smart people who have interesting theories. Based solely on my interaction with theorists, I’d describe or define theories as ideas that will never be acted on. I know that’s not an accurate definition…just one that helps me not get too caught up in the theory of things.

What are some of your theories about ideas?

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  1. Aug 28, 2008 at 1:13 pm

    Guilt is a powerful driver. I just read this yesterday and it made an impression:

    And as an elder of a church in Manhattan (you recently interviewed a mutual friend, WM), I am thinking that a lot of our ministry is affected by wealthy American guilt. Perhaps guilt is the wrong word, and it is rather the realization that we have been given much, and therefore, much is required of us.

    Even so, it’s still a difficult drive to channel redemptively.

  2. 2Joe Ayala
    Aug 28, 2008 at 1:17 pm

    Theory is filled with abstract thought and it also can come about from the actions of another. If I saw you reading books all day and your name is Bobby. I can come up with a theory that “all Bobby’s like to read”. Some theories go out there though, but I still think they can, and will sometimes, be acted upon. In the end and idea comes from nothing but a theory comes from observation, or action. Hope that makes sense.

  3. 3matt Metcalfe
    Aug 28, 2008 at 1:48 pm

    theory is someone’s idea of how things are or could be. As in “theoretical opinion”. Columbus had a theory tthat the world was round but popular theory was that we lived on a flat planet that the heaven’s revolved around. His hypothesis was that he could prove his theory by sailing past the horizon and back to where he started. I guess a theory and an idea are the same. The hypothesis is the key to seeing them realized.

  4. Aug 28, 2008 at 2:13 pm

    I think the church has often gotten caught up in theories and not gotten around to action and follow through.

  5. Aug 28, 2008 at 2:54 pm

    I think what Bobby might be trying to say is there are two kinds of people in this world - dreamers and doers. Dreamers say “Wouldn’t it be neat if …?” Doers say “When I get finished, it’s going to be neat!” The difference between the two? In my opinion, courage.

  6. 7matt Metcalfe
    Aug 28, 2008 at 4:07 pm

    touché. Well said Kyle and bobby. Didn’t mean to sound rantish.

  7. Aug 28, 2008 at 4:58 pm

    I guess a theory is something that can’t be proven and there are no ways to prove its veracity. An idea is something that can be tried to see if it is true or not.

    Idea: Put a man on the moon
    Theory: Evolution :-)

  8. Aug 28, 2008 at 5:10 pm

    Bobby and Kyle -

    I disagree wholeheartedly. There are dreamers and engineers. Occasionally these happen to be the same people, but more often than not the dreamer has to have the idea, and motivate the engineer to action. We are all necessary. It is true that some are unmotivated dreamers (they have to do _something_ for it to count), but being more of an idea-person is not problematic if you know the people who can make them fruitful.

    Personally, I’m more of a starter than a sustainer. In software, I’m good at getting something from a dream to version 1.0, but terrible at going beyond that. But I have a whole team of people who I can throw things to who are excellent at it.

  9. Aug 28, 2008 at 5:11 pm

    Also note that I am not usually the one with the dream. Sometimes I get to implement my own dreams, but usually it is someone else’s.

  10. 12Bruce
    Aug 28, 2008 at 8:45 pm

    Maybe a little off topic here, but what I struggle with is making the idea “stick” with those who have the power to implement it. The problem is that I don’t think they really get it. It’s not their own and it is either difficult for them to see the relevance, the importance or the creativity of it. How do I convey my ideas to the powers that be so that they “get it?” I hate using the phrase but how do I “cast the vision” so to speak?

  11. 13Gary Detrichg
    Aug 29, 2008 at 10:59 am

    The difference between theories and ideas may be more semantic than real. It also may have to do with the disicpline, scientific vs. real life situations, rather than the process that brings the thought to articulation. After the thought is conceived it is dependent upon the person it lives within. So the individual has control over the life of the thought. Some would start immediately,(jumpers) some would start later,(procrastinators) some would start after they know it would work,(safety,rational) some would never start,(dreamers). So we all have ideas and fall somewhere in the bell curve of implementation. Learn how to live with or change yourself and don’t be judgemental of others.

  12. Aug 29, 2008 at 11:11 am

    Johnathan & All, as I envision it, dreamers and doers are people with ideas. The difference is a doer typically has the courage to act on their idea(s) despite the risk of failure. A successful “doer” will recognize their abilities and inabilities to finish-out their idea, and recruit others to help them succeed.

    Bruce, may I encourage you to pray for favor amongst your peers before presenting your idea(s) to them? If you’re struggling with “buy-in” from your peers, there isn’t anything better to do than pray for God to open their minds to see your “vision.”

  13. Aug 29, 2008 at 12:15 pm

    From what I know of myself, I love ideas, but I don’t love implementation. The gap for me is not so much a lack of courage, but I’m very much intuitive and abstract, and get lost in the details. For me, a task list is too much detail, and I need help. :)

    I’d love to have a role where I can be a strategist and nurture ideas, and hand them off to others to implement and execute. Does such a job exist?

  14. Aug 29, 2008 at 1:47 pm


    If you find it let me know. I want to apply for that job too.

  15. Aug 29, 2008 at 2:15 pm

    Ahh, missed what you were saying BG. Hello DJ, I’ve seen you at Waterwind?

    Which requires more faith, an idea or a theory?

  16. 19Barry Armstrong
    Aug 30, 2008 at 5:37 am

    Bobby, that is great advice for all of us. Numerous times we have had meetings where someone would say in response to an idea, “I don’t get it, but if you do, that’s good enough for me.” That’s trusting the individual, and you’re right it comes through lots of little steps. Nevertheless, even in such an atmosphere, all ideas are not always accepted and should not necessarily be interpreted as lack of trust. So another bit of advice (or the same advice with from a different angle) may be to dial down the breadth of projects you propose and acclimate “the powers that be” slowly to what you want to accomplish. it may be they are just not ready for such huge steps, even if they don’t seem that big to you.

  17. 20Kendra
    Aug 30, 2008 at 9:53 am

    Based on the test from the “Now Discover Your Strengths” book, I evidently have a frustrating combo of strengths: Ideation, Command, Strategic, Input, Self-Assurance. So basically I come up with tons of ideas about anything based on input from a wide variety of sources, quickly determine which one would work best and how to do make it happen, and am 100% sure that it will be awesome.

    Sound great? Not in practice. How that actually comes across is as a bossy, over-confident, know-it-all, who always thinks her ideas are best.

    My biggest struggle in the theory/idea realm is fighting against my strengths, clinging to God in hopes that His character (AKA fruit) will over-shadow my strengths. Not easy.

    In my case, I have to think less about how to cast vision for or realize my ideas and more about listening to and submitting to others’ ideas.

    Oh, and sorry djchuang and Tom, Bobby’s already got that job sewn up. :)

  18. Aug 30, 2008 at 10:12 am

    Ideas are what happen when you’re willing to kick around a theory outside the safety of your own brain. But even ideas are dead in the water without making them flesh, just like faith is dead in the water as a noun. Hope is great, but faith is hope in action. Even better.

  19. 23William Mak
    Aug 30, 2008 at 2:09 pm

    I realize I’m joining the party a little late, but I have been listening to the discussion on the distinction between theories and ideas (as we have defined it here), and why some are ‘dreamers’ and others ‘doers’ who act on the idea . Kyle suggested courage as a differentiator. Some have suggested personality or strengths. Caveat Bettor raised a question of faith being a differentiator. CB may be onto something…

    IF I discern that an idea (or theory) is from God (entrusted to me) then there is a responsibility of stewardship that requires me to ACT. If I accept that conclusion, then I am led to the parable of the talents (Matt 25). And in my opinion, scripture suggests that the real differentiator - between the servants who acted and the one servant who buried the talent (like an idea or theory incarcerated in our intellect) - was their faithfulness with what was given them by the Master.

  20. 24Bruce
    Sep 1, 2008 at 4:57 pm

    Thanks Bobby and Kyle. Trust is very difficult to gain at our church. I think there needs to be someway to first show them why they can trust me. Perhaps from former successful ideas that I’ve implemented in my own area of ministry as well as church-wide. I realize that it’s also easier for people to grab hold of an idea that is there own rather than someone elses.

  21. 25Nyxll
    Sep 2, 2008 at 9:13 am

    In theory there is no different between theory in practice.

    In practice there is a difference.

    An idea is something you theorize about and then you put it into practice.

    If you are having a problem getting an idea across here is something that I finally managed to teach our corporate leadership team.

    “Tell me and I may remember,
    Show me and I may forget,
    Involve me and I will understand”

    The idea is something that people own and will be able to put into practice… theories are just conversation topics.

  22. Sep 2, 2008 at 11:20 am

    I think ideas are rad but that they can easily turn into a checklist of stuff to do and kind of crowd out our space for relationship and for realizing grace.

  23. 27John Musick
    Sep 2, 2008 at 7:15 pm

    It seems that a theory seeks to explain something and an idea seeks to build or change something.

    Both are based upon observation and context. Both can bring about betterment and change or either can contribute nothing.

    There does seemed to be an “X” factor that bridges thought and action, concept and pragmatics. From my vantage point as a Pastor, theory doesn’t doesn’t help much without application in real life. In my experience, more often than not, it seems as if the idealogue theorist may be more easily satisfied in the ideal but the visionary remains empty until the idea is manifested in practice.

  24. Sep 9, 2008 at 11:30 am

    [...] the conversation in your recent Swerve comments. A recent one from Bruce in response to the Theories vs. Ideas post brought up a great point…what I struggle with is making the idea “stick” with those who [...]