Expert vs Generalist

My recent blog on the importance of experts prompted one reader to comment that he preferred the term “specialist” (in a non-medical sense) to “expert”. This got me thinking about the notion of “experts” as distinct from “generalists”, and whether we need to re-evaluate our assessment of skill, competence and aptitude when assessing someone’s suitability for a task, project or role. (And these days, is “generalist” itself something of a pejorative term?)

A few days later, I was having coffee with a strategic consultant who is known as a future thinker. He describes himself as an “extreme generalist” (with no hint of irony), because he has wide-ranging and multiple interests, some of which, of course, he has deep domain knowledge and experience. But because his work and his curiosity take him into different realms, he maintains a broad perspective which also allows for the cross-pollination of ideas and concepts. (I think we all recognize the value of analogy when problem solving – taking the learning from one discipline and applying it to a new scenario.)

Separately, but in a similar vein, I was discussing career options with a senior banking executive, who did not want to be pigeon-holed as a banker, because her core skills and professional experience would lend themselves to many industries, not just financial services. So in her case, this expertise would best be applied in a particular type of role, not in a specific domain, or a specialist capability.

And during an earlier discussion on leadership with yet another futurist, I found myself debating the notion of situational styles, as opposed to structural models – both of which require skill and expertise for CEOs and managers to be successful. But broad experience will be just as important as formal methodologies, and general business knowledge just as valuable as technical specialisation. (On reflection, as with so many constructs, it’s not a case of either/or – more a question of adaptation and dynamics.)

As a result of this ongoing dialogue, I was challenged to develop what I might describe as a 3-D model, comprising the following axes:

“Generalist”/”Specialist”: In product management terms, for example, the generalist understands the full end-to-end customer life cycle and the production process. Whereas, a specialist might know their particular part of the process extremely well, but has little to no awareness or understanding of what might come before or after. (Think of those frustrating customer calls to utility, telco and insurance companies – in fact, any business with highly siloed operations – where you get passed from one “specialist” to another, often revealing contradictory information along the way.) At the extremes, this dimension might be described as the difference between knowing a subject “a mile wide and an inch deep”, and knowing it “a mile deep and an inch wide”.

“Novice”/”Veteran”: This is probably obvious, but I don’t necessarily mean seniority, age or tenure in a specific role. When it comes to new technology, for example, someone who is new to the role, but who has just been trained on the latest software and equipment, may have better technical ability than someone who has been doing the same role for several years (and thus, has more knowledge and experience), but has not refreshed their skills. Although I concede that in many situations the incumbent veteran may have better developed problem-solving, trouble-shooting and decision-making capabilities. This axis is also really important to consider when transitioning older employees to new roles within the same organisation or team – if they were younger, they would probably be given more time to adjust, adapt and grow into the role. Whereas, an older employee may simply be expected to “pick it up” much more quickly, with less leeway for learning on the job, because of assumed expertise.

“Broad”/Narrow”: Here I am thinking about aptitude, rather than the degree of specialisation. Drawing on the idea of using analogies, someone with wide experience and a broad perspective (sees the big picture, displays both critical and design thinking) will have quite different qualities to someone with a very narrow focus (especially within a very specific domain or area of practice). Based on the particular context, do you need an all-rounder, or a placekicker? This axis also relates to the age-old issue of organisations only wanting to hire square pegs for square holes – it might make sense in the short-term, but risks stagnation and lack of fresh thinking over the long-term.

Assessed along these three dimensions, we might see that an “expert” could be qualified according to how highly they rate based on their overall “depth”, measured by criteria such as experience, knowledge and reputation, as well as formal qualifications.

Next week: Making an Impact at Startup Victoria’s Pitch Night


The Day of the Mavericks – the importance of intrapreneurship

As part of my notes on Melbourne’s recent Startup Week, I mentioned an interesting discussion on “innovation from within”, and the importance of intrapreneurship. There has been a steady stream of articles on the rise of intrapreneurship, an often overlooked skill set or resource that all organisations need to tap into, harness and deploy successfully. But what does it take to be an intrapreneur, and where can we find them?

Idea Machine - image sourced from Vocoli

Idea Machine – image sourced from Vocoli

The panel discussion on “Innovation from the inside out” was mostly about what leaders are doing to foster entrepreneurial-thinking from within their own organisations, featuring Janet Egber (NabLabs), Phil Harkness (EY), Martin Kennedy (GE) and Liza Noonan (CSIRO). Much of this effort revolves around connecting individual purpose with collective purpose (team, organisation, society). For example, at EY, there is a program to “promote purpose-led transformation, grounded in humanity and a call to action”, while GE also places importance on purpose. CSIRO, meanwhile, is clearly undergoing some huge transformational change of its own, with a key focus on “making the treasure chest of ideas happen.” (For a couple of related blogs, see here and here.)

When asked about how to incentivize intrapreneurship, and how to prioritise efforts, Liza Noonan was of the view that the “grass-roots” of the organisation “give us permission” to pursue particular projects. While Phil Harkness talked about the need to develop appropriate career paths, and the importance of change management engagement.

In my own experience, intrapreneurs are likely to display a healthy mix of the following characteristics:

Curiosity – This is critical. If you don’t display any interest in what is going on around you;  if you don’t think about how things could be done differently, better or more effectively; or if you don’t care about how things work, you are unlikely to discover anything new or uncover new business opportunities. This is not only about formal technical skills, this is also about personal outlook. It’s not intended to be disruptive, but maverick thinking is often what gets results.

Creativity – While I am not a big fan of formulaic management methodologies, I do see some value in certain aspects of the Six Hats model – of which Green for Creative Thinking is key here. As well as being a vital part of ideation and innovation, having a creative mindset (coupled with innate curiosity) is essential to problem solving – especially when it comes to “what if?” scenarios, and joining the dots between seemingly disparate data.

Commercial – Intrapreneurs don’t need to be financial wizards, or be the best sales people – but they need to be grounded in the commercial realities of how businesses work, how markets develop, what customers think, and what it takes to launch a new product or service. Being open and receptive to customer feedback is essential, along with an ability to manage solution sales and consultative selling.

Uncertainty – Being comfortable with uncertainty, and learning to be resilient, flexible and adaptive are essential to the intrapreneurial mindset. This may include a different approach to risk/reward models, as well as being able to look beyond the normal business plan cycle into the “unknown” of the future.

Scepticism – Having a healthy degree of doubt and not falling prey to over-optimism can help to manage expectations and enthusiasm built on irrational exuberance. We know most new ideas never get off the whiteboard (which is OK!), so the skill is to challenge everything until proven, but in a constructive, pro-active and collaborative way.

The key to intrapreneurship is being able to find your role or niche in the organisation, from where you can develop your expertise, establish your influence and build a foundation for solid outcomes. While at times it can feel a bit like “right person, right place, right time”, there are strategic steps you can take to manage your own career as an intraprenuer, including networking, self-directed learning, volunteering for new projects and taking responsibility for fixing things when they go wrong, even if they are outside your immediate responsibilities. It’s these sorts of behaviours that get noticed.

I know from personal experience that being curious and asking the right questions can lead to exciting new opportunities (in my case, six years in Hong Kong to establish a greenfield business). I also value the advice of a senior colleague soon after I joined an organisation: “You need to be part of the solution, not be part of the problem” when it comes to organisational change. And some of the best indirect feedback I ever received was from a colleague who introduced me to a new hire: “This is Rory, he’s our lateral thinker”.

Finally, it’s not always easy or comfortable to challenge the status quo from within (which is what a lot of intrapreneurship involves). Intrapreneurship can also feel lonely at times, which is why it’s vital to make the right connections and build sustainable relationships because, in army terms, you don’t want to get a reputation for being part of the “awkward squad”.

Next week: “Language is a virus” – a look at coding skills

Why The Service Sector Lacks Self-Awareness

If you did a root cause analysis of companies that rate poorly for customer service, I predict it would reveal one or more of the following:

  • Outdated processes
  • Inadequate staff training
  • Poor product knowledge
  • Operational silos

What it usually comes down to is a chronic lack of self-awareness. (This is not helped if there is a failure of leadership, or a toxic culture within the organisation.) Despite all the customer feedback forms, platitudes such as “your call is important to us”, and the regular customer advocacy reports, unless service providers can truly put themselves in the shoes of their customers, they will never have sufficient knowledge or self-awareness with which to fully evaluate the “customer experience”.

Image: Customer Feedback Device (Source: Smarte Carte)

Image: Customer Feedback Device (Source: Smarte Carte)

Today’s customers are more knowledgable (because they have access to more information, they can shop around, and in some cases, they have more choice). Today’s customers are also actively encouraged to engage with corporate social media (by following, liking and sharing, and by becoming surrogate brand advocates). However, the increased levels of expectation that this “engagement” creates are not always matched by the post-sales customer experience.

I have written before about how companies can improve their customer service, using a practical 7-point scheme. I would challenge any organisation that rates itself highly for customer service, to assess its performance against those criteria, as well using the ubiquitous customer satisfaction scores (CSAT, NPS®, CES, etc.).

Nearly every time I have an interaction with a telco, utility, bank or other service provider, I receive an immediate follow-up customer feedback request. Once upon a time, I would have been quite willing to provide constructive feedback, as I used to believe that it was important for the voice of the customer to be heard. Nowadays, I am more hesitant, because I don’t believe this feedback is ever properly acknowledged, analyzed or acted upon.

So many of these feedback request forms are self-serving, because the person you dealt with is in effect soliciting personal feedback on their individual performance. And while that is important, it is rarely done in the specific context of the customer’s own experience, and is more concerned with the company’s internal policies and procedures.

I am also increasingly sceptical about feedback processes that are ostensibly used for staff training. First, time is valuable, so it would be nice if companies could reward their customers for making the effort to engage. Second, on the rare occasions where a company has contacted me in response to a complaint submitted online or via a feedback form, I never learn what specific steps the company is taking to rectify problems caused by operational or policy failings. Thirdly, why should I be responsible for telling you how to train your staff or improve your service – surely that’s your job!

In many cases, it is not the performance of an individual customer service representative that is the problem. More likely, it’s poor customer service training, inadequate product knowledge or a myopic perspective, reinforced by silo operations. When even the most pleasant and competent service rep tells me, “I’m sorry, but it’s the way the system is designed…”, they probably don’t realize what a disservice they are doing: a “system” is only as good as the people who design it, and the people who implement it. So, they are in effect criticising their own colleagues, and the organisation they work for.

This lack of self-awareness by customer service staff is reinforced by the limited discretion in trying to resolve customer problems. Along with the use of internal jargon and bewildering acronyms, there is nothing worse than having to complain long or loud enough in order to escalate a problem. It would be wonderful if companies could empower their staff by giving them (well-defined) individual discretion on problem solving, and incentivize them for taking responsibility for the end-to-end resolution process.

In addition, it’s really infuriating being handed from one specialist, team or department to another, especially due to labyrinthine help line service menus. Telco on-boarding processes are particularly notorious for having complex operational procedures, multiple hand-offs and ring-fenced communications. I recall one large service provider who told me that in-bound call-centre staff were unable to speak directly to their own web support teams, and even if they communicated via internal e-mail, they could not guarantee a response.

If I am beginning to sound a bit like a broken record, it’s because recent experiences only reinforce my belief that many companies still don’t understand what it’s like to be one of their customers. But there’s a huge paradox here: on the one hand, companies are trying to reduce customer churn, increase “stickiness”, and improve the share of wallet or lifetime customer value; on the other, the cost of new customer acquisition appears to be cheaper (thanks to social media tools and web analytics), so it doesn’t matter if they lose a few customers, because it’s not that difficult or expensive to find new ones.

If it’s no longer true that “the customer is always right”, because profit margins are being squeezed and companies are being told to “stop delighting your customers”, then service providers have to do a much better job of managing customer expectations. They also need to demonstrate genuine empathy and concern if things go wrong (which is difficult if they don’t have sufficient self-awareness). And if things do go wrong, they need to ask the customer “what could we have done differently to provide you with better customer service?”.

In my professional experience of product management and business development, understanding customer needs and identifying ways to improve service delivery (along with customer-centric perspectives rather than product-led processes), are genuine sources of competitive advantage. But it takes considerable self-awareness to engage customers beyond the level of a single transaction, to develop genuine rapport, and to build sustainable long-term relationships. If your organisation is challenged by poor customer service, and if you recognise this is in part due to a lack of self-awareness, please get in touch – I’d be very interested to understand your problem.

Next week: Idea over Form – Gehry vs Ando

How to spend $60m on #Innovation and #Entrepreneurship for #Startups

In the recent Victorian State Budget, the government allocated $60m over 4 years to supporting startups, via innovation and entrepreneurship. While not an insignificant sum, it’s still not a huge amount in the overall scheme of things. Having made the announcement, the government hurriedly undertook some rapid community and stakeholder consultation, to figure out how to spend the money. I was fortunate enough to be invited to one of the consultation exercises, a half-day lightning conference organised by Dandalo Partners, facilitated by Collabforge, and hosted by Teamsquare co-working space.


The theme of the Lightning Conference was #StartUpFuture

At the outset, there was an assumption that whatever recommendations came out of the consultation process, a new quango would be formed to oversee the implementation of the program and distribution of the funding. I don’t think I was alone when I expressed my concern that this was rather like putting the cart before the horse – the implication being, “Why seek our opinion, views and recommendations if you’ve already decided the solution?”

To their credit, the organisers took this on board – for example, rather than creating yet another entity, maybe the funding could be facilitated by an existing body such as Startup Victoria – but it felt that the consultation exercise was at risk of “going through the motions”.

Across the various topics that were discussed in the self-forming and self-directed breakout sessions, there were probably 5 key themes:

  1. Community
  2. Infrastructure
  3. Funding
  4. Sustainability and 
  5. “Picking Winners”. 

Here are the main points from each of those themes:

1. Community

There was general agreement that the local startup and entrepreneurial community is well-established, reasonably well-connected (I myself knew about 10% of the participants from various networks) and growing fast.

However, there was also a common view that more could be done to bring entrepreneurs and like-minded people together. For example, how do people know what ideas or projects everyone is working on, how can people find help or make offers of help in terms of matching skills, experience, knowledge, resources? How do we connect suppliers and investors to startups?

Sure, there are numerous meetups and regular startup events, but is there a better way to leverage this potential?  And there are various matching services linking entrepreneurs to mentors, but they are rather ad hoc, and in the case of connecting startups and investors, there are probably more challenges than there are opportunities (see Funding, below).

In short, how can the community come together in a more collaborative way?

2. Infrastructure

It’s quite easy to see that Victoria (mainly Melbourne) has a vibrant startup ecosystem, simply based on the number and frequency of meetup events, founder workshops and hackathons. But there still appear to be numerous obstacles to getting started – from establishment costs and bureaucratic red tape, to tax impediments and access to funding.

Some of these challenges are being addressed at Federal level (e.g., streamlining the company registration process, tax cuts for SMEs, and changes to both equity crowdfunding and employee share schemes). But that’s part of the challenge in itself – at the individual State level, there is relatively little that can be done on fiscal policy (apart from payroll tax and land tax), and all reforms relating to securities financing need Federal legislation and the involvement of market regulators.

The State government has more autonomy around local industry policy settings and planning, as well as making funding available via grants. This means, though, that government is forced to prioritize one sector over another (see “Picking Winners”, below), and a system of grants often results in a mini-industry that is created around grant applications, awards and distribution.

At a practical level, some participants took the view that more could be done to facilitate early stage startups and product prototyping – such as a continuous education and open-enrollment program for entrepreneurs, and co-working spaces for small-scale manufacturing, materials-testing, and engineering. (I am aware of at least a couple of local projects in this space – a biotech co-working lab and an “Internet of Things” open access workshop).

If the State government is looking to plug a gap, investing in R&D facilities might be one option.

3. Funding

This remains the biggie – and a topic previously covered both in this blog, and via numerous commentators and advisers. Even though there are many local pitch competitions, incubators and accelerator programs (plus Shark Tank and That Startup Show make for interesting/amusing viewing…) the elephant in the room is that there are too many startups chasing too few investors.

Competition for resources is positive, as long as it’s an efficient, transparent and accessible market, where the laws of supply and demand are equitable and the rules of engagement are clearly understood.

One industry veteran noted that the local investor community can normally provide small-scale startup funding up to $5m (via “family, friends and fools” and angel backers), and even larger, early-stage equity funding over $50m (via Venture Capital, Private Equity and Family Offices). But in the $5m-$50m range there are far fewer options.

Leaving aside the pros and cons of traditional secured and unsecured bank lending and emerging P2P lending platforms, there is a funding gap that could be filled via Australia’s superannuation scheme:

  • First, we need to find ways to get large retail and industry super funds along with other institutional investors to invest directly in local startups. At present, thanks to the Silicon Valley effect, these instos are more comfortable handing their money to US-based fund managers who then charge a premium to invest the assets in local startups. (I call this a very expensive boomerang….)
  • Second, in the absence of suitable investments for retail investors who may want to allocate part of their portfolio to startup opportunities, part of their superannuation assets could be used to invest in early-stage startups via a form of savings products or fixed income bonds. The retail bond market (such as it is) is heavily skewed towards sovereign debt (treasury bonds) and bonds issued by financial institutions (often in the form of hybrid securities, which are essentially a form of deferred equity). There have been attempts (and even regulatory reforms) to encourage the development of a deeper retail bond market in Australia, but these efforts appear to have stalled.

An enlightened approach to asset allocation could direct even a very small part of the $1.8tn superannation savings into startups that could have significant outcomes. If SMEs are seen as the backbone of future economic activity and jobs (as well as innovation and entrepreneurship), helping to accelerate startup growth will deliver multiple long-term dividends.

4. Sustainability

This wasn’t a huge topic of discussion, but it deserves an honourable mention because it surfaced in several ways:

  • Economic (e.g., making better use of available resources, not funding startups that go nowhere etc.)
  • Social impact (e.g., the growth of social enterprises)
  • Environmental (e.g., the conscious capitalism movement and the importance of “for purpose” enterprises such as B-Corps that want to minimize their environmental footprint)
  • Government (e.g., how to foster startups that want to help deliver better public services, and how to change public sector procurement policies that give startups more of a look-in)

There is also a need to reflect the changing demographics of the workplace, so that sustainable employment opportunities (in whatever form they exist) are made available to both mature-age workers and new school leavers.

So perhaps part of the $60m could be put towards (re)training initiatives.

5. “Picking Winners”

First up, let me say I always get nervous when we put our elected representatives in charge of deciding the fate of specific industries, especially when it’s taxpayers’ money at risk. Call me a cynic, but I’m not sure that picking winners is the government’s forte. I understand the need to support certain sectors that contribute to GDP growth, create employment opportunities, generate taxable revenue, instil industry innovation and develop cutting-edge technology – but the example of the domestic automotive industry is one where political ideology probably got the better of sound economics, as public subsidies eventually came to look like throwing good money after bad.

If nothing else, picking or backing winners is fraught with problems of favouritism, lobbying, murky back room deals and “jobs for the boys”. Better to create the foundations upon which broader innovation and entrepreneurship can thrive, and let the market decide. That way, the government can still claim the credit, and frame the conversation around its role as an enabler.

On the day, the discussion was more about the long lead time before anyone would know whether the program had been successful (assuming we can agree on what success should look like). In reality, re-tooling innovation and entrepreneurship is a 10-year initiative (which is difficult to manage in the face of short-term policy settings linked to 3 and 4-year election cycles).

  • Should we teach entrepreneurship and innovation in schools (alongside coding and STEM subjects)?
  • Should government use local plebiscites to determine where/when/how the funding should be allocated?
  • Should we use the money to directly fund startup founders (rather like the UK’s enterprise allowance scheme in the 1980s)?

There was also a suggestion that the money could be used to promote local startup success stories, in order to foster an understanding of truly viable startups, to identify and fast-track high-potential entrepreneurs, as well as define what is takes (time, money, resources, networking and connections) to build scalable and sustainable startup businesses (i.e., companies generating $250m+ in revenue, not lifestyle ventures or small family owned concerns).

If we do need to pick winners, perhaps we can easily agree which ones they are based on current trends, future needs and demographic demands:

  • Health, biotech and medtech
  • Fintech and big data analytics
  • Education and lifelong learning
  • Renewables and green technologies
  • High-tech engineering and manufacturing

In which case, we should simply help the State government prepare an investor profile, set an optimum portfolio performance target (based on financial returns, innovation scores and a mix of social and environmental outcomes) and give the $60m to a skilled fund manager.


For further ideas, please see 10 Random Ideas…


A couple of further contributions to the innovation debate from AVCAL around tax reform, and from OneVentures around superannuation allocation.


Next week: Medtech’s Got Talent