In a recent article in Management Today, Lynda Gratton offers three keys to building a sustainable working life – deep mastery, building a posse of associates and being part of the ‘big ideas’ crowd. In principle I have to agree and, in fact, these ideas seem pretty obvious at first glance. It makes perfect sense to keep up to speed with the latest thinking and to position yourself to be part of the conversation. It also makes perfect sense to build and maintain a responsive network of colleagues and advisors – who’s going to argue with that? But it is the idea of ‘deep mastery’ being an essential component for success that made me think twice.
In her brief discussion of deep mastery she states that being a ‘jack of all trades’ results in an inability to differentiate from the competition. Now, while this may be true in the broadest sense, I believe that there is a place for a more generalist contributor where depth is balanced against a range of complementary and integrative skills. There is no point in a leader/manager duplicating the skills of their entire team. In fact, this would be impossible in most cases and could lead to disempowering micromanagement. What is needed, however, is a working knowledge of the area being managed coupled with an ability to assimilate new ideas quickly and understand what level of supporting expertise is needed. Information is ubiquitous and successfully connecting the dots requires a broader perspective.
Deep domain expertise is difficult in a world where things are changing so fast. It’s impossible to stay abreast of everything and seeking refuge within a micro-niche can be hazardous if it becomes outmoded or if it reinforces a narrow perspective. It has been argued that the specialist era is waning; particularly in domains with uncertainty and ambiguity [“All Hail the Generalist”- Vikram Mansharamani, HBR 2012]. From my experience, uncertainty and ambiguity are the norm and go hand-in-hand with the need to continuously innovate. It is in this context that a generalist can really shine.
Personally, I subscribe to the idea of being a deep generalist – going as deep as is relevant (or just plain interesting) in a number of domains and staying open to ideas from many different industries, cultures, technologies and personalities. Obviously, this requires a strong foundation but after that it’s just an application of the ‘80/20’ principle and avoids confusing (adequate) mastery with perfection. Change, innovation, projects and programs are all about integration and successful integration requires a holistic ‘big picture’ viewpoint coupled with an adaptive objectivity.
Leaders, managers and advisors need to maintain a broad perspective and that road is not paved solely with expertise; rather it is the domain of “T-shaped people” as Tim Brown [CEO of IDEO] calls them. T-shaped people have a principal skill (the vertical leg) and add to this a range of complementary skills that bring critical perspective and insight. In response to Gratton’s ‘jack-of-all-trades’ assertion, I suggest that mastery need only go as deep as is useful and that it is the uniqueness of a given combination of skills and experiences that should serve as the real differentiator.
“The way is long if one follows precepts, but short... if one follows patterns.” – Seneca