The general belief is that focusing on building expertise in a specific area is the key to achieving success. This notion may have been ingrained in you while at university, or even prior, when you were expected to choose an academic discipline and concentrate on its related topics.
If you pursued a degree in Computer Science, you may have taken courses that covered programming languages like Fortran, Pascal, or C, arming yourself with techniques and approaches that may now be considered obsolete. By the time you submitted your final project, newer and more efficient solutions might have emerged.
Historically, in fields such as marketing or accounting, it was expected that you focus solely on your area of expertise and disregard “diversions” such as history courses, philosophical discussions, and even practical skills such as public speaking, in order to succeed.
Publications like Outliers and Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother seem to reinforce the notion that early specialization is crucial for achieving success; the latter book takes it a step further by suggesting that learning a musical instrument is a futile endeavour if not commenced during early childhood.
Before being promoted to a managerial position, you may have invested significant efforts into acquiring a comprehensive understanding of your industry and company. A fantastic approach to showcase your technical expertise as a leader is to possess extensive experience with a specific software application or implementation methodology, such as Agile.
The Issue of Specialization
Over-specializing at an early stage and to a considerable extent can cause individuals to become well-versed in a single area but deficient in other capabilities. If the only tool at your disposal is a hammer, finding the right solution for each problem may be challenging.
The popular notion is backed by robust evidence. For instance, a study conducted by Harvard Medical School found that patients with heart attacks who were treated while their cardiologists were attending a conference had a greater likelihood of survival.
The study discovered that interventional cardiologists, the medical professionals who carry out invasive treatments on patients following heart attacks, had spent years honing their surgical skills. The research also indicated that the mortality rate was higher when hospitals applied the conventional, forceful approach to managing cardiovascular conditions.
When analysing different technologies, it is evident that their development shares similarities. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, large Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) systems were deemed to be the solution to all corporate problems. However, numerous attempts at implementing them resulted in catastrophic consequences, ranging from expensive errors to situations where entire companies were on the verge of being shut down due to their failure to carry out crucial operations and deliver goods.
It is frequently noted that specialists in a particular domain may have a tendency to employ their preferred tool or methodology without considering its appropriateness to a given situation. This phenomenon can be observed in companies either where the vendor’s technique is universally accepted or where the organization mandates the approach to problem-solving. In such situations, creativity and collaboration may suffer, resulting in decreased efficiency of the solution.
Understanding the Importance of Diversity
Leaders possessing extensive expertise across diverse industries and technologies can leverage their vast knowledge to assist their teams in finding solutions. This is particularly crucial in cutting-edge fields such as digital transformation and machine learning. Interestingly, machine learning originated from the fusion of elements of biology and neuroscience with computer science, two seemingly distinct fields, which eventually led to the creation of artificial intelligence based on neural networks modelled on the neurons in the human brain.
Possessing a diverse array of knowledge can facilitate the implementation of a business model, process, or practice across different settings. Frequently, an established technique or technology can be utilised to formulate a novel solution, as it can be modified to tackle a new problem or domain.
Gaining General Knowledge
If you work in an industry that places a premium on specialized expertise, having a diverse set of skills may appear desirable but hard to obtain. Nevertheless, acquiring a comprehensive perspective to address the issues that your organisation is grappling with doesn’t have to entail an extended period of study.
Participating in casual conversations with colleagues can be immensely advantageous. Suppose your IT team is solely focused on financial matters. In that case, it may be worthwhile to communicate with members of the marketing and logistics departments to acquire an understanding of their ongoing projects and challenges. Asking questions and attentively listening to the answers may furnish you with fresh knowledge, methods to address issues, and perhaps even an inventive idea that you had not previously contemplated.
It is crucial to recruit staff, vendors, and consultants who can provide a versatile skillset in the long run. Sadly, some workers and consultants make the mistake of seeking to showcase a greater degree of expertise than their supervisor or client. In such situations, supplementing the team with another specialist in the same domain is unlikely to be advantageous.
Hiring a new team member or a consultant with expertise in a distinct domain may grant you access to novel concepts and strategies. These individuals are unafraid to question established methods or traditional practices. Although initially, adopting a new perspective may not seem advantageous, it can frequently lead to distinct outcomes.
Expanding one’s horizons in terms of education, interests, and principles can foster personal development. Cross-training has been encouraged by athletes for a while as it assists in mitigating the adverse effects of excessive specialization and familiarity, while also presenting new physical and mental trials.
As a seasoned runner, I had initially disregarded the significance of yoga; however, after giving it a try, I recognized that it enhanced my performance on the track and heightened my self-awareness. The same concept applies to the corporate realm, where engaging in ‘mental cross-training’ can aid in breaking free from established routines and cultivating more adaptable thinking, enabling us to effectively fulfil our leadership responsibilities.