I was reading Francois Gossieaux's piece on hyper-specialists yesterday (hyper-specialization is not always the right thing to do
), and it suddenly occured to me that a whole lot of people just don't take the time to take their noses off the grindstone and broaden their skills. It isn't their fault; unless they come from a true liberal arts background, it's just not something that's really part of their educational makeup.
Having spent years heading product development projects, Francois' observation that hyper-specialization stands in the way of innovation rang very true to my non-specialist ears:"First off, hyper-specialization may very well stand in the way of breakthrough innovation. Indeed, most breakthrough innovations happen not at one level of specialization - but they increasingly happen at the confluence of multiple disciplines. People who have the capacity to scan across multiple businesses or vast amounts of information, and who can translate innovations from one field to the next are as likely, if not more, to come up with breakthrough innovations as the specialists.
Which brings up another important negative side effect of hyper-specialization. Hyper specialists know very much about very little - which means that they do not understand what happens in adjacent spaces. What should be valuable information coming from other sources within the company or markets now looks like data - with no meaning, nor the ability to influence the hyper-specialists' work. Worse, in hyper-specialized environments, you could conceive that the hyper-specialists will not understand the impact of their actions on the broader picture - which can have especially dire consequences when it comes down to environmental impact of innovation."
In other words, it pays to broaden your horizons.
Take IDEO's hiring practices, for example: IDEO is careful to hire mostly people with one very deep skill and a dozen or more broader skills. Why? Because the powers that be understand that having the ability to think outside of your contextual silo is crucial to fostering functional innovation.
So... an accountant with twenty years experience is a lot more likely to help her company develop successful financial programs if she's also a writer, an athlete, a mom, a gardener, a photographer, a world traveler, and somewhat of an expert when it comes to architecture and design than just... a really knowledgeable accountant.
Perhaps more interestingly, she may be one of the instigators of her company's next marketing campaign or web-based initiative.
Bear in mind that I am not talking about an accountant with one serious hobby (like building model airplanes out of toothpicks or growing Alain Blanchard roses). I am talking about folks blessed with a pretty high degree of intellectual curiosity. These people draw inspiration from a variety of sources and apply some of their observations and insights cross-contextually on a regular basis.
Functional innovation isn't about inventing. It's about taking a design characteristic from industry A
, and applying it to industry Q
Like the chew-proof dog toy that inspired the crush-resistant grip of a heavy-duty hose gun. Like the retractable safety handle in VW sedans that inspired the slow-return trigger on a commercial spray valve.
Those Eureka moments rarely emerge from linear/tunnel-vision research. They come from leaving the lab and going outside. They come from investigating new cultures and subcultures. They come from stepping out of your element, of your comfort zone, and going out to challenge your senses with new experiences and points of view. Inspiration doesn't come from same-old, same-old. It doesn't come from routine. Ever.
Don't get me wrong: Hyper-specialists make fantastic technicians. They know no equal when it comes to performing highly precise repetitive tasks - from calibrating sensitive machinery and preparing your taxes to applying clean sutures or landing an F-18 on a wind-tossed carrier. But when it comes to strategy, innovation, leadership and creating lasting brands, hyper specialists tend to have little to offer outside of their narrow range of expertise.
So my advice to you if you're in a rut (or if you're looking for your next big idea) is to just relax and go outside. Take a road trip. Take the afternoon off and go ride a bike. Go into a computer store and find out everything there is to know about inkjet printers. Go pick up a graphic design magazine and hang out at a tea bar. Take a stroll through an antique shop or your town's hippest interior decorator's gallery. Read a book about something you've never read about before. Go have a drink with a friend or a colleague or a competitor.
Fellow blogger Andy Woolard puts it this way:"At some point, you have to hear the clink of ice in a glass and listen to a person's tone change during conversation. You have to be humbled by bound books and black and white photographs of authors who would kick the cyber ass of most bloggers on the 'Net. You have to change your chatroom url to a local bar address. You have to unplug."
His point was about something completely different, but the principle is the same. Unplug. Give your senses something new to play with.
If you don't, you'll end up like this guy
- A hyper-specialist with more experience in the field of marketing than I could ever hope for, but painfully clueless
about some of its most important developments in the last three years. How does this stuff happen? Simple: When you don't stop to look around once in a while, when you only stick to what you know, you lose your ability to see anything outside of what you want to see.
You stop learning. You stop innovating. You stop growing as a professional. As a person. As an artist. As a leader.
It's the hyper-specialist's trap, and it's a dangerous one. This is the kind of stuff that can invalidate an illustrious career in one misguided speech or article. It can destroy brands inside of a couple of years. It could turn even companies like Apple, Google, Coca-Cola and Starbucks into "have-beens". (It only takes one guy. One narrow-minded CEO or CMO. One misguided or out-of-touch consultant. One obtuse board of directors.) Scary? You bet.
So don't fall in the trap. Broaden your experiences. Broaden your horizons. Step outside of your comfort zone. Don't work with or for people who don't understand the value of challenging what they think they know. Don't waste your time with people who are afraid of change or too set in their ways.
Be bold. Reinvent your world regularly. Watch miracles happen as a result. Your career and your companies depend on it.