In sport, the question of whether it’s better to have generalists or specialists is often discussed. The same is true in business. Those building teams obsess over it and have vastly different views on what the ‘right’ answer is and whether it differs depending on circumstances. Here we discuss the roles of each and how companies are increasingly sniffing out ‘foxes’.
“The fox,” Archilochus wrote, “knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing”.
In a 1953 essay titled The Hedgehog and the Fox, Isaiah Berlin said writers and thinkers fall into two categories: hedgehogs are specialists who view the world in one way while foxes, who follow many diverse ideas, are generalists.
David Epstein’s book Range – advances the case for the generalist in a world that increasingly breeds specialists. He starts his argument by outlining a clear example from the world of sport.
Essentially, hedgehogs are simplifiers and foxes are multipliers.
The common sporting example of the benefits of specialism is Tiger Woods, famously given a golf club from birth, putting on national tv as a child and winning his first major, The Masters, aged 21.
This backs up a thesis, popularised by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers, that it takes 10,000 hours to become an elite performer in a field. This number is slightly mutable but it means that early specialisation would appear to be the route to excellence in a field.
Here though, Epstein presents the counter-example of Roger Federer – a boy with a tennis coach for a mother who not only didn’t get coached by her, but didn’t even specialise in tennis until his later teens. Federer has a great case for being the best tennis player of all time and one of the greatest athletes ever. He’s still competing and winning major tournaments while Woods has experienced years in the wilderness, beset by injury and personal problems.
So is it better to be a generalist or a specialist?
According to Epstein, there are some incredible and overlooked benefits of generalism that get lost in our need for a narrative that explains excellence. A youngster playing a multitude of different sports and having diverse experiences until young adulthood is a less compelling narrative than the lone, early genius archetype that Woods so surely epitomises.
It’s not as simple as whether a specialist or a generalist is always better than the other. The environment in which you operate is a big determinant in the success or otherwise of an individual.
Psychologist Robin Hogarth distinguishes between “kind” learning environments and “wicked” ones.
A “kind” context, which is rule-bound and predictable, rewards the obsessive focus typical of the hedgehog.
A “wicked” one, where the rules and patterns are unclear, confuses the hedgehog and rewards the more diverse experience of the fox.
You can see why Woods, in the relatively closed world of professional golf, found that his obsessive, deliberate practice of a closed skill, with fewer externalities than some other games, was rewarded with success. Outside of sport, think about AI and it’s phenomenal ability to win games of chess compared to its inability to master self-driving cars. One is a closed, kind environment with years of historical data and strict parameters; the other is a constantly changing, chaotic environment with rules that are regularly broken.
Rugby is an example of an environment for specialists – a prop and a winger can’t perform each others’ roles – that requires a general vision to solve problems posed by the opposition. It’s a chaotic learning environment with closed elements.
Where rugby and business make for a good comparison is that they are both becoming more and more complex. A prop used to only need to scrummage and lift. Now they need to have a suite of skills to even remain on a field longer than 5 minutes. The world of work is yet more complex.
3/4 of American college graduates go on to a career unrelated to their major, including science and math majors. In the UK, this figure was about 50% in 2014 and almost half of all graduates get non-graduate jobs despite having specialist qualifications. Economist Bryan Caplan calls this university experience, ‘narrow vocational training for jobs few of them will ever have’. It’s the equivalent of Tiger Woods playing only golf until adulthood and then switching to tennis.
This approach leads to a narrow competence and, in a time when where, how and what we do for work is changing, narrow competence is becoming less and less useful.
Specialisation can even be dangerous – in Range officials say that it played a critical role in the 2008 financial crisis, where a ‘specialized approach to regulation missed systemic issues’ – there was no one who had oversight across trenches. Epstein remarks that,
“Overspecialization can lead to collective tragedy even when every individual separately takes the most reasonable course of action.”
If you’re familiar with the film The Big Short, you’ll know that those who benefited the most from 2008 were oddballs and outsiders – those who had the flexibility to see across domains and join the dots. The big banks, who were used to working in a predetermined way in a system that had always previously worked and benefited them enormously, were not prepared for a new circumstance because they had never seen it before. They found the idea ridiculous.
Once you become known as an expert, you become more convinced of your ideas and begin to see evidence of them everywhere, even in places they don’t exist. This is harmless until it isn’t and when it goes wrong, the consequences can be extreme.
Think of the famous examples of companies that failed to look outside of their trench – Kodak, Nokia, Yahoo. They were all market leaders who at a conceptual level, failed to imagine a new reality in their industry.
Russ Roberts says that expertise is:
‘actually a hammock, not a trench, because it’s so comfortable people don’t want to get out.”
Your business environment needs to avoid the comfort of the hammock if it’s to thrive.
So it seems that while we need specialist knowledge from our hedgehogs, we need foxes to be able to make connections between disparate trenches and integrate learnings to spur innovation.
In this respect, perhaps the best place for generalists is in management. Thinking about sporting corollaries – the most successful managers combine technical knowhow, subject matter experts, psychology, storytelling and increasingly, language skills.
Epstein quotes Ellen Cousins, a researcher for trial lawyers, who says that subject matter experts are an invaluable resource, ‘but you have to understand that they may have blinders on. So what I try to do is take facts from them, not opinions.’
This isn’t necessarily easy – experts can be convincing! Foxes need to have belief, both in the people you trust and in their own ability to distinguish fact from opinion.
To bring it back to Tiger vs Roger:
“While it is undoubtedly true that there are areas that require individuals with Tiger’s precocity and clarity of purpose, as complexity increases—as technology spins the world into vaster webs of interconnected systems in which each individual only sees a small part—we also need more Rogers: people who start broad and embrace diverse experiences and perspectives while they progress. People with range.”
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