“‘In a wicked world, relying upon experience from a single domain is not only limiting, it can be disastrous.’” David Epstein
‘Equipped with knives all over, yet none is sharp’ and ‘Nine trades, the tenth one – hunger’ are respectively the Chinese and Estonian equivalents of our ‘A jack of all trades is a master of none’. These are only two among dozens of examples that show how cross-culturally widespread has been the belief that someone who tries to do many things instead of focusing on gaining expertise on one specific domain is doomed to fail.
‘… but oftentimes better than a master of one.’
The story goes that the complete phrase in English was initially used to refer to a playwright - most likely William Shakespeare - who would help with different aspects of a theatre mise-en-scène from stage and costumes to set and overall directing. In other words, it was meant as a compliment to indicate someone who had an exceptionally wide range of skills that made them excellent at what they did. This clearly clashes with the more negative connotation of the phrase that is used today for someone who is a generalist, lacking the depth of knowledge that someone who focuses entirely on one specialism has. The concepts of specialisation and fragmentation of work are legacies of industrialisation and have become more and more highly valued over time until becoming engrained in all aspects of our society, including education and career development.
The generalist vs specialist dilemma
A lot of young professionals leaving university are often faced by the recurring dilemma of whether to specialise early or become a generalist, well-versed in more than one specialism. Until recently, the most common advice would probably have been to focus on developing knowledge and expertise on one specific niche as a way to have a competitive advantage when applying for specific roles. This could have been particularly good advice in a ‘simple’ world with a low level of uncertainty and volatility and in those cases when the young professional in question has a clear idea of the career path to pursue. But is this still valid in our post-modern business environment, where fewer and fewer people have a linear career path and will probably have to retrain multiple times across their professional life span to remain employable?
This topic has been much debated over the years and thought leaders have presented us with different perspectives on the topic. In his 2008 book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell discussed the ‘10,000-hour rule’, inspired by Anders Ericsson’s concept of deliberate practice and based on the idea of honing one specific skill by focusing solely on it and investing a considerable amount of time and energy. On the other hand, in 2019 David Epstein wrote Range, a book which described deep specialisation as an exception among athletes and thinkers who represent the excellence in their fields. In reality, they are generalists who gain knowledge and experience across different interests and subjects and, as a result, develop a more creative, innovative and resilient mindset that allows them to become exceptional in their chosen area of expertise.
Fox or hedgehog?
When speaking about generalist and specialist mindsets, we often borrow the words of the Greek poet Archilochus: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” The philosopher Isaiah Berlin adapted this idea to divide the writers and thinkers of his time in two groups: the hedgehogs who look at the world from one specific perspective and through one single idea and the foxes who accumulate a wide range of experiences and see the world as a multiplicity of ideas.
The implications of this concept for us as professionals is evident and reflect two very different approaches in making decisions, finding solutions and dealing with uncertainty and change. Foxes experience and develop knowledge through multiple contexts and scenarios, they learn from a variety of sources and are curious to find out more about the unknown while hedgehogs are narrowly focused and have one deep, single idea or area of expertise that guides all decisions and often take action based on instinct, from an almost ideological point of view.
Of course, these are generalisations and are far from watertight ways to define complex mindsets but they help understand a few of the risks that young professionals – and more experienced one too – have to face in our business environment.
What are the risks of becoming overspecialised?
In a world where specialisation is praised but we are increasingly asked to deal with a high volume of information and data as well as multiple complex scenarios, it may be worth reflecting on the potential pitfalls of overspecialising.
. Silo mentality. Applied to an individual mindset, it indicates the tendency to concentrate on one specific idea or area of expertise and, as a result, risking to develop only a partial, fragmented view of the surrounding context, turning a blind eye to other equally important aspects. This might also lead to a lack of flexibility and adaptability to change as well as to an inability to identify emerging opportunities.
. Competency trap. Herminia Ibarra, Professor of Organizational Behaviour at London Business School, introduces this concept to discuss the bias towards sticking to what we know and do well instead of looking for alternative, potentially more effective approaches and solutions. According to Ibarra, we act under the false assumption that “what produced our past successes will necessarily lead to future wins”, something that now more may be completely wrong.
. Narrow intellectual horizon. Specialisation usually lead to a depth of knowledge and competences on a specific area but also to an inability to look for new information and ideas that go outside our focus. This might make it difficult for a professional to unlearn a specific set of skills, to adapt to what is new and different.
Does this mean that young professionals should become generalists to succeed in their career? Not necessarily. As it is often the case, the answer is somewhere in the middle and depends on the specific work you do, your role or the individual assignment you may be working on. In order to add value, a young professional need to be both, a specialist and a generalist.
We need more eagles!
The idea that the generalist and specialist mindsets should work together was discussed by Dutch marketing professor and author, Jan-Benedict Steenkamp in his latest book “Time to Lead: Lessons for Today's Leaders from Bold Decisions that Changed History”. Steenkamp describes two additional profiles that build on Berlin’s descriptions of foxes and hedgehogs: ostriches and eagles. The latter is particularly interesting because it combines together the fox (generalist) and the hedgehog (specialist). The first mindset helps to find solutions and apply logical reasoning on specific problems while the second is necessary when strategies and approaches need to take into account the wider context and encompass multiple skillsets and knowledge areas.
As management consultants, we usually work in very different contexts and definitely need a wider perspective on things in order to help our clients solve problems that rarely can be dealt in isolation. They generally are part of the overarching strategy and vision of the organisation. Experience, continuous learning and an eagle mindset can help us decide when it is more appropriate to think like a fox or a hedgehog!
In other words, next gen professionals should aim at building both depth and breadth of knowledge as well as developing the flexibility to work between approaches and mindsets. History teaches us that real change and innovation is often created by people who find solutions where different specialisms overlap.
Author Nick Lovegrove proposes the idea of a T-shaped knowledge where the horizontal stroke represents a variety of experiences and perspectives (breadth) and balances out the core of specific knowledge (depth) of the vertical stroke. It could be argued that the current world of work and, our profession more specifically, require professionals to go one step further and consider an M- or comb-shaped knowledge that includes the development of more than one area of deep expertise during our career span. A single area of specialism is simply not enough anymore; breadth leads to higher levels of skills transferability and a better understanding of unknown and changing dynamics.
These insects are equipped with an exceptional set of lenses that allow them to look in multiple directions simultaneously as well as perceive a range of different stimuli and signals from the surrounding environment. In addition, their brain is then able to synthetise all the information and generate useful insights.
This is exactly what we should do as professionals: develop the ability to gather knowledge from a wide range of sources and perspectives and then process them in a way that can give us a competitive advantage and the ability to face challenges and capitalise on opportunities.
Learning to join the dots
The combination of an eagle mindset, comb-shaped knowledge and dragonfly eyes could help professionals develop a unique set of skills to differentiate themselves. It goes without saying that every role and assignment requires different skills and knowledge but a profile like this would encourage a balanced skillset. However, it definitely requires a certain level of effort to adopt this mindset but it can generate significant benefits in the long term.
As consultants, our reputation is built on our specific knowledge. This means that it is necessary to start off as a specialist by building solid knowledge in one niche and mastering specific technical skills. However, it should not stop there. The more we progress in our career, the more we need a wider-ranging business view to deal with increased complexity, manage a team or even start our own practice.
The aim shouldn’t be to accumulate a huge amount of knowledge just for the sake of it but foster the ability to ‘joining the dots’, in other words to bridge the gap between different skill sets and specialisms, and connect pieces of information that may look completely unrelated in appearance. Once that becomes possible, knowing what the skills of the future are becomes almost superfluous because you have the ability to see beyond a specific role or situation and use mental models and your mindset to transfer, adapt and apply your skills to any changes happening around you.
This series of articles have been discussing different soft skills and mindsets that could be key for the future generations of professionals. One of the underlying themes has been lifelong learning and the continuous acquisition of new skills and experiences, a process that should take place throughout our career and leverage our competences, acquired expertise and exposure to different contexts and people. When it comes to the latter, role models represent one of the key sources of knowledge but their importance is often underestimated. And what happens when young professionals don’t have role models around them at all? The next article will reflect on this topic and on the need to provide more opportunities for the next generations to have access to suitable role models.
Valentina Lorenzon is a member of the CMCE Coordination group and editor of the CMCE newsletter.