“Specialization is for insects. Humans need the mystifying ability to cope with the unpredictable and ambiguous challenges posed by thinking adversaries in the real world.”
It's an interesting question that may not have as binary an answer as we would like. We need specialists, and we need strategists.
Can someone be a little bit of both?
Since the early '90s recruitment included the concept of T-shaped skills — a metaphor used to describe the abilities of individuals. Depth of expertise and related skills in a single field represented by the vertical bar on the T, and the horizontal bar indicates ability to collaborate across disciplines with experts in other areas and to apply knowledge in areas of expertise other than one's own.
In the early days of social media and with the flourishing of digital experiences and culture, the metaphor was used as a way to describe an ideal combination of depth and breadth. It's particularly useful in consulting and technical fields, which rely more heavily in dynamic feedback loops.
A a strong understanding of the system as a whole can be very valuable to organizations.
Who is a specialist?
A specialist is an expert or devoted to a particular brand of research — if you're having an eye surgery, you want to go to a physician who specializes in that particular organ, or even issue, because they'll have more experience under their belt.
How we should think about specializing.
“Everyone should learn programming” is a statement that has been making the rounds. Knowing how to code is valuable, but the advice is incomplete if we don't know how to apply the value to something. On the other hand, if you learn to develop web sites using specific WordPress themes like Genesis or Divi, for example. That is something specific.
Learning how to code is a good way to acquire strong analytical thinking skills, learning logic workflows and debugging through an activity that is very intertwined with modern business. We can apply those skills to many situations beyond actually building apps or sites.
But keep in mind real world applications when thinking about becoming a specialist.
Because as software developer Jeff Atwood says,“[Coding] puts the method before the problem. Before you go rushing out to learn to code, figure out what your problem actually is. Do you even have a problem? Can you explain it to others in a way they can understand? Have you researched the problem, and its possible solutions, deeply? Does coding solve that problem? Are you sure?”
This happens in many professions and fields — the world needs more people who know how to define better solutions than the ones we have now. Coding is how you solve the problem. But first you need to define what the problem is.
It's true in software development, and it's true especially in emerging fields like Artificial Intelligence (A.I.).
Experts are taking a beating in current mainstream conversations, but there is tremendous value in true depth of experience and practice in a field. This is especially true as industries and professions mature. Specialization is not static. There's a constant need to stay up to speed and update skills based on new information.
Who is a strategist?
To understand better what strategists do, it's useful to understand what strategy is.
Col. John Boyd defines it as, “A mental tapestry of changing intentions for harmonizing and focusing our efforts as a basis for realizing some aim or purpose in an unfolding and often unforeseen world of many bewildering events and many contending interests.” More definitions of strategy here.
Strategists deal with complexity and time as vectors. Their skill is the ability to use new information to update decisions on a course of action to reach an aim.
Complexity is a measure of relationships. One thing depends on another. Complex systems are a network of things that are connected and do interesting things like anticipate the future and adapt.
- dispersed control - like the Queen bee in a beehive
- interacting agents - as in the behavior of many individuals who bring with them their own motivations, their own mental models, their own problem-solving strategies, e.g. the Stock Market
- non-linearity - built on small elements that tend to interact and have much larger consequences, like the butterfly effect
- adaptation - or the ability to anticipate the future by lots of agents, like a flock of birds
- exhibit perpetual novelty - like the immune system that is constantly trying to predict what your body is being attacked by
The weather is a complex, adaptive system. The best we can do is make a prediction of what might take place based on what we currently know about the system. To keep in front of issues, we update our predictions based on new information.
To do that, we use the premise contained in Bayes' theorem that uses math to describe the probability of an event based on what we already know to update the probability based on new evidence or information.
Strategists are systems thinkers who scan the market to uncover new patterns and data points, challenge assumptions and test hypotheses as they balance past and future to frame issues. Their skills include synthesis, storytelling, and the ability to engage multiple perspectives.
Whether we're specialists or strategists, a better question is how our choices are creating a fulfilling career that also helps make the world a better place. Understanding the differences in focus is useful to help us acquire the right skills and experience.