Range – how generalists triumph in a specialised world

During our careers, many of us are faced with what’s essentially a choice between being a specialist or generalist. For senior marketing people seeking progression, a junction inevitably appears – either move to general management (perhaps via an initial sideways move) or a search for a bigger functional role outside the current employer.
This dichotomy is the underlying theme that runs through my December reading, Range by David Epstein. Although its content reaches far beyond the workplace, to me that’s the angle that most resonated.
To be honest, I was ready to ditch the book after the introductory chapter which compares the routes to success taken by Tiger Woods (essentially trained to be the world’s best golfer from the womb onward) and Roger Federer (who was allowed to experiment with different sports and a comparative latecomer to tennis). The rejection was rooted in my resistance to over-simplified arguments that often work along the lines of “so-and-so is successful and they did it this way, so you should too”.
However, after a couple more chapters it was clear that I’d missed the point in the first few pages. Epstein’s point is don’t follow a set path. Instead the author’s argument is that while specialisation in a particular field – especially at a young age – may work for a few people (Woods), it’s unlikely to work for most, for whom the odds are vastly improved by ‘being more Federer’.
Range is a thought-provoking book which claims it is generalists that will “triumph” in a specialised world. Epstein believes that to succeed (personally & professionally) people should seek to gain a variety of experiences, actively pursue experimentation and have many & varied interests.
That breadth of exposure – or range – better prepares people for the increasingly complicated and unscripted challenges they’ll face.
I found myself agreeing with a lot of the book – and I hope this is because the arguments are good, not simply because I myself lean towards generalism.
A number of the themes in Range are highly relevant for executives in marketing, or for that matter, most people working in organisations.
Empty offices? It’s predicted AI could eventually displace a third of white collar jobs
Career paths that beat automation
We will all have read some dire predictions about swathes of management jobs disappearing due to artificial intelligence (AI). Stein makes the point that automation and AI tend to be best at finding ways to do fairly routine tasks either better or quicker.
Most job opportunities of the future are those where the human brain remains the superior tool on multi-dimensional tasks that are not so easily replicated – such as decoding and managing human emotions and behaviour, viewing situations from multiple angles or using abstract frameworks, transferring and applying experiences from different contexts, and so on.

More effective problem solving

“History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme”. This quote, often attributed to Mark Twain, sums up why a breath of historic experience can help someone spot underlying patterns and behaviours within a new context. For example, many brand teams have been impacted by – or at least are fearful of – disruptive smaller players stealing market share. Much of that threatening innovation is not inherently new – it involves the transfer of thinking from a different industry or category.
So, it follows that directly experiencing or even learning about other categories/industries can help marketers perform better within their own.
“Teach a man to fish”. Equipping people with critical thinking and problem-solving skills is better for business in the long run
Teach how to think, not what to think
Epstein noted that an innovative course launched in 2017 at Washington University called “Calling Bullshit” filled up within a minute of registration opening. This course he suggests is part of a welcome movement in academia to teach more ‘thinking skills’ to students that will help them navigate any field. He argues that having just one good tool is never enough in a complex, interconnected and rapidly changing world.
How much of our effort as marketing leaders is equipping people to solve problems for themselves? How do we help guard against falling into the trap that “to someone with a hammer, any problem looks like a nail”?

Happy today or perform tomorrow?

In a similar vein, one chapter is dedicated to what Epstein calls “learning fast & slow”. Evidence suggests that when learning is challenging – and answers are not immediately available or readily hinted at – it feels slower and frustrating to the learner. But, in the longer run, this style of learning makes for better performance. Students want immediate results and studies show they “mark down” lecturers when they don’t feel they’re making immediate progress.
I believe this this principle is directly comparable to developing people in the workplace. As their boss, do you operate in their long-term interests, or favour employee satisfaction today? Either way, how do you explain your approach to the team?
Epstein believes that combining evidence and reasoning comes more naturally to generalists

Coping with ambiguity

Epstein often refers to the importance of ‘inference’ – drawing conclusions from evidence and reasoning – in other words the ability to make educated guesses. Being comfortable to work in this way is becoming ever more important – for example as marketing teams are asked to move quicker to bring initiatives to market but often without the business tolerating more risk.
It follows that the more broad/diverse to pool of evidence and reasoning the team can draw upon, the better their educated guesses will be. To my mind, one of the behaviours that makes high-potential marketers stand out is a willingness to make educated guesses based on incomplete but reasonable inputs – as opposed to anxiety about missing data preventing any forward movement.
Marketing leaders need quick and agile – but not foolhardy – teams working on their business. Developing their inference skills is something that will help people operate in this way.

Being more innovative

Epstein gives examples of what he calls over-specialisation in industry, particularly in complex organisations where people are working on problems in “parallel trenches” which makes it difficult to establish connections between challenges or inject fresh thinking into work streams.
The book also highlights how people who have become expert on a project or in a field of experience overestimate the likelihood of their success. Forcing them to compare their projects with conceptually similar ones has been shown to re-introduce objectivity. The frequent and large over-spends in infrastructure projects are a good example of where deep and narrow experience in a project often leads those involved to be over optimistic.
The challenge for marketers – especially those in complex organisations – is how do you help teams to work across silos to solve problems? How do you balance continuity of a project team with injecting fresh challenge and different perspectives?
In some company cultures, conflict over differences in thinking is avoided all all costs

Cognitive diversity

In a chapter called ‘fooled by expertise’ Epstein applauds people who are able to draw upon knowledge from a variety of disciplines, rather than be personally vested in a particular approach. He highlights Philip Tetlock’s theory that people are either “hedgehogs” (who know one big thing) or “foxes” (who know many little things). Although no one can predict the future accurately, foxes tend to make better forecasts simply because they can imagine and play out a wider range of different scenarios in their heads.
The author implies that business naturally encourages more hedgehogs, although not necessarily deliberately, for example through functionally-led training, organising into centres of excellence and encouraging deep specialisation via job specs.
Something barely touched in the book, but to my mind often “the elephant in the room”, is the extent to which it is culturally acceptable for people in a business to express divergent views. Having more generalists is great, but an openness to entertain other opinions is the only way to harness the potential benefit.
How willing does your team feel to explore alternative sets of assumptions, draw different conclusions or express alternative opinions? Do leadership behaviours need to be modified to emphasise that disagreement is not just OK, but welcomed?
Sadly most ‘hacks’ transpire to be mirages

In his concluding chapter, Epstein cites one of the motivations for writing the book – to act an antidote to what he calls the abundance of life “hacks” in the popular media. Hacks are simple one-size-fits-all recipes for success which he argues are hugely appealing because they promise a tidy prescription that’s “low on uncertainty” and “high on efficiency”.

But hacks are mirages. Instead the author’s point is that a generalist path will more likely lead to success but inevitably involves untidy experimentation, failures and disorderly progress, late starts and dead ends. Ultimately, I share Epstein’s view that experiences lived along those often-tangled lines are something more real and ultimately more valuable.
At Brand Ambition we help marketing leaders create conditions for their teams to thrive and perform. If you have a organisation, team capability or culture challenge, get in touch for an informal chat.

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