The power of foxy thinking

I recently read this article and saw this video by Vikram Mansharamani, a Yale professor, and decided I needed to write a blog post about its awesomeness.

Vikram (I’ll use his first name for obvious practical reasons) makes a brilliant case for why society and business need more generalists in addition to the many specialists.

“Corporations around the world have come to value expertise, and in so doing, have created a collection of individuals studying bark. There are many who have deeply studied its nooks, grooves, coloration, and texture. Few have developed the understanding that the bark is merely the outermost layer of a tree. Fewer still understand the tree is embedded in a forest.”

The classic description of broad knowledge vs. deep knowledge is the saying from an ancient Greek poet that “the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing”. The fox is a generalist and the hedgehog is a specialist.

The future belongs to the foxy thinker. This is Vikram’s argument and I totally agree with him. Our highly interconnected and global economy means that business challenges are increasingly ill-defined and vague, are affected by more things that are farther away, they’re made up of pieces that cannot be separated into isolated parts, they depend on a future of great uncertainty, and so on and so forth. If a specialist who only knows one big thing examines such a complex challenge he will often be so narrow minded that, based on his rigid, pre-conceived notions, he will insist on a standard solution which works mainly in theory or only fixes a little part of the problem in the short term. Vikram sites research that compellingly proves this.

It’s easy to say that we should all be a bit of both. I guess that’s true to some degree, but I think that in many cases being a good generalist inhabits you from being a good specialist, and the other way around. At least it’s very hard to be a specialist and a generalist at the same time, because they require different ways of thinking which often aren’t combinable. Also, we all have a limited amount of time available so becoming both a good generalist and a good specialist should be very difficult for most people.

Despite Creuna having lots of really smart people, both specialists and generalists, I personally often see this at work too. For example, at many meetings we misunderstand each other quite frequently, and often unknowingly, a little bit here and there, because we use words that mean different things to different people with different specialities. When I say digital marketing, does that mean things like banner ads and search engine marketing, or things like a digital service that makes customers’ life easier? Of course, it’s both, which you naturally see if you’re a generalist. Moreover, often a specialist won’t be able to think strategically across disciplines, which is increasingly important to deliver differentiated customer experiences. Bottom line: don’t dig yourself too deep within your field of knowledge, but learn lots of small things within related disciplines. Also get comfortable with working effectively with other people so that together you’re one big generalist!

I’ll leave you off with this funny cartoon. If IT specialists would make a product alone this is how it would go:


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