We have become a culture of specialists. To some extent, the increasing complexity of our world has necessitated this increased specialization. It’s simply not possible for an individual to command all the information in their field of study today. Like perms and leather jackets, gone are the generalists. The specialists are increasingly running the world, particularly as we become more and more driven by the data they alone are capable of delivering.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with this process of specialization. My last article focused on the critically important role specialists play, influencing within organizations, in a myriad of ways, through the exercise of their knowledge and expertise. This month, I’d like to turn the telescope around and take a look at the big picture: What is the risk to our business when we miss the forest for the trees? What gets lost when the world gets so small? And can we create a perspective that connects the specialists’ knowledge with the more traditional vantage point of the generalists and their gift for seeing big picture trends and patterns?
Remember turning the telescope (or a pair of binoculars) around when you were a kid and looking at the strange—and rather distant—world presented to you? Let’s be honest, half the time it was just as much fun to look through the “wrong end” as it was through the “right end”. In both instances the world that presented itself to us was novel, inviting us to see with fresh eyes what we might have been unaware of, or simply taken for granted, a moment before. Turning the telescope around is a creative act; it provides a novel way of seeing the familiar. Now, more than ever, we need to be able to turn that lens around and view situations, and our business, from a different—and broader—perspective.
What this means in practice is several-fold. First, leaders have to be able to look beyond the edges of their respective silo to see the business in aggregate. This is critically important as leaders advance in the organization. As a front-line supervisor, leading a group of individual contributors, that vantage point is necessarily cramped. But you need to be able to understand how the business strategy is operationalized at your level and carried out by your team. This requires a level of perspective that appreciates both how your team is connected to the larger strategy of the organization, as well as appreciating the actual day-to-day tasks that make up your teams’ contribution to that strategy.
Much of your data, and indeed, much of your time, might be specialized around the knowledge necessary to execute these daily tasks, and the performance metrics that allow you to measure your progress. This is understandable and even necessary to an extent. But without a generalist’s sense of the bigger picture–of how your work connects to the larger organization–your ability to marshal those activities and properly account for your successes or failures will be compromised. You have to be able to turn the telescope around to see the whole frame.
As you evolve as a leader this becomes even more critical. You may no longer simply lead a team, but lead a department, or a division. This involves a different level of vision. Decisions at this level can’t be made solely through the lens of a single function, but require the leader to have clarity across the entirety of their span of control. A responsibility for effective allocation of resources and demarcation of boundaries, the hiring and development of appropriate talent, shepherding innovation and creating accountability for outcomes across the entirety of your silo: this is only possible when you truly have a sense of the whole, a balanced approach to leading that full function. Favoring a particular team, or department, or area of your control, as sometimes happens when we’ve worked ourselves up through a certain area of the business, would undermine your ability to lead the function successfully. That sort of “myopic specialization” is an example of where turning the telescope around is critical to seeing the whole picture.
This is exacerbated at the most senior levels, where the responsibility for creating and driving strategy lives. To create strategy, leaders must have the capacity to see across the entirety of the business. Strategy that fails to account for the breadth of the organization is just bad strategy. To re-phrase this, leaders must have a clear understanding of the entirety of their business in order to draft strategy that will be both appropriate and effective. By example, consider a strategy for Amazon that focused only on selling books. This may have been a good strategy in 1997, but would now be the epitome of myopic, leaving the true commercial power of the company out of the equation.
Regardless of where their individual strengths and interests lie, these leaders must be able to understand the business as a whole in order to operate successfully as leaders at this level. From their vantage point at the top of the organization they alone have the scope of vision to understand the different needs of the business and to generate a strategy capable of satisfying those needs. It’s critical they make use of that vantage point to ensure that strategy does indeed speak to the entirety of the business, independent of their personal passions or their function of ownership.
A similar argument could be made for the organization’s specialists—the individuals in the organization whose value is generated by their knowledge and expertise. These may be engineers, customer service specialists, systems analysts, portfolio managers, IT or network gurus, oncologists—even sales team members are a version of specialists, creating revenue for the organization through the application of their specialized knowledge of the company’s products and/or services.
As specialists grow and develop, their ability to connect their knowledge and “know how” to more and more areas of the business becomes increasingly important. They add more value through their ability to influence without direct authority. The more they’re sharing–the more their knowledge and expertise informs training, strategy, market and product choice, consumer focus and a thousand other areas of company concern–the stronger the overall business is. In effect, the organization is harnessing their specialization to impact the totality of the business. The risk is that this doesn’t happen, and, instead, they remain deeply siloed with a marginal impact to the business. This is easy to miss when a specialist is early in their career. But as they develop, failure to harness their knowledge to broader purpose in the organization is a real mistake.
We make this mistake all the time by refusing to leverage specialists beyond the narrow range of their function. Think of the number of new insights that are the outcome of applying specialized knowledge to other (seemingly) unrelated areas? This happens all the time in science, where breakthroughs in one field lead to transformative impacts in a non-related field. We’ve watched this evolution happen right before our eyes with the internet: constant innovation achieved by stretching technologies into new fields. Need we remember, Facebook started as an app for rating girls; now it plays a role in everything from business commerce, to news and information delivery, to keeping families or communities connected. (Unfortunately, it never shelved its early commitment to rating; it’s still pestering us with “likes” and “dislikes”.) Or consider where we’ve come in terms of driving directions and the harnessing of satellite technology. The introduction of GPS and direction apps radically re-shaped that equation, didn’t it! Big difference. Big. Difference.
The pace of technology, and the information overload it fosters, is showing no sign of slowing down. In fact, quite the opposite. We continue to need specialists, and, in large part, will continue to require specialization to make sense out of the information flooding us and the need for application-specific outcomes. But we miss something too, when we fail to look up and catch our bearing. Someone has to be willing and able to see the forest, if we’re going to navigate our way through the trees.
This role traditionally falls to the leader, as both important in their execution of their business and as an outgrowth of the vantage point they have in an organization. And leaders need to continue to exercise this role. There’s no plotting a direction without recourse to perspective. But we also have an opportunity now to harness and better utilize that specialized knowledge from those mining it. Being intentional about connecting data across the organization and harnessing insights beyond individual silos is how real innovation takes place. When leaders ensure the big picture is not lost behind the minutia; and specialist are wedded to the task of making data available and applicable throughout the organization, not just in their silos, then companies have the advantage of creating strategies that truly reflect the necessary direction of the organization, informed by the knowledge and the data essential for making the journey.