In today's increasingly complex world, companies seek specialists, not generalists. But consultant Nick Lovegrove argues that's a mistake: Complexity actually demands breadth, which means our organizations are headed in the wrong direction.
Indeed, it's a potentially dangerous situation. He points to the financial crisis a decade ago, where wizards of finance – deep specialists – had little idea of the potential ramifications of the arcane investment packages they were creating.
Yet, the pressure to specialize is intense. When Mr. Lovegrove joined McKinsey and Co. 35 years ago, most of his colleagues were generalists. When he left three decades later to become U.S. managing partner for Brunswick Group, the consultants tended to be specialists and many were what he calls in an interview "extreme specialists."
He also sees this narrowness in the many people in business, government or social services who never spend time in another of those domains. They become narrow and we lose the gift they could bring – he refers routinely to breadth as a gift – if they moved from one to the other.
We're pressured from an early age to specialize. You can see it in all fields, from business to the arts to sports. We're enthralled by the so-called 10,000-hour rule, the amount of time supposedly required to become an expert. Mr. Lovegrove accepts the value that specialists bring to our lives: We want our airplane pilots and surgeons to be extremely skilled. But we probably have a working life of 75,000 hours or more, he figures, so that offers a chance to be knowledgeable in more than one field.
"We are starting to pay a heavy price for this obsession – individually and as a society. More and more people with a broad range of intrinsic capabilities and interests are living relatively narrow lives – because that is what they think, and what they are told, it will take for them to achieve professional success and personal fulfilment," he writes in his book The Mosaic Principle.
He counters the assumptions driving this trend. First, evidence shows that we have overestimated the value of specialist expertise and underestimated the significance of broad experience. Second, the complex multidimensional challenges we face in modern society are better dealt with by a broad approach. Climate change, he notes in the interview, is not just an environmental issue – it's economic, political, social, cultural, and involves communications challenges. Third, he argues most of us would choose breadth over depth, if given the option.
He is calling for a rebalancing between depth and breadth. If you set out to achieve that in your own life, his study of 200 people who exemplify the breadth he preaches suggests you pay attention to six dimensions:
Moral compass: You need to understand what ethics drive you and accept that you can keep on track even if, for example, you weave between business, government, and the non-profit sector.
He points to Carol Browner, who worked for a grassroots environmental lobbying organization, headed the U.S. Environment Protection Agency and joined a corporate strategy consultancy, and Roger Sant, who worked for the U.S. government Federal Energy Administration, headed an energy research centre at a university and then co-founded a Fortune 200 company that distributes electrical power. They are social activists who have to act differently in the government and social entrepreneurial roles they have held but still hold fast to basic principles.
Intellectual thread: You will want to avoid being a dilettante – a jack-of-all-trades and master of none. To accomplish that, keep the broader experience underpinned by a robust intellectual thread – some skill that you carry through the different chapters of your life, such as Ms. Browner's and Mr. Sant's knowledge of energy and the environment. You want depth and breadth, combined.
Transferable skills: You need to develop skills that work in different contexts. He cites Steve Rattner, who knew nothing of the car industry when he was named the U.S. government's car czar in 2009. "But his skills as an investment banker and journalist could be applied to the car industry he knew little about," Mr. Lovegrove says.
Extended networks: You want to build a network that transcend your industry (or narrow slice of an industry) to make you more effective in a world of breadth.
Contextual intelligence: You need to be conscious of the context you are operating in so you don't become ineffective. "If you work with a non-profit and talk about maximizing the bottom line you will sound ridiculous but people in my field have done it," he says. Instead, be respectful of different contexts and adapt to them.
Prepared mind: Louis Pasteur said "chance favours the prepared mind." If you have thought consciously of what kind of life you want, you are more likely to take advantages of options opening up new possibilities to broaden yourself.
Breadth or depth? With a world pushing you towards depth, keep breadth in mind.
Harvey Schachter is a Kingston, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online column, Power Points. E-mail Harvey Schachter