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

 

Getting Stuck – and how to deal with it

We’ve all witnessed (or even experienced) those moments when a speaker or presenter gets stuck. They stumble over their material, they offer an inappropriate response to a tricky question, or they simply go off topic and stray into verbal quicksand. And although they realise they are in difficulty, they carry on regardless, only to wade deeper and deeper into the mire. Some of our current political leaders know exactly how that feels…

Photo by Mark Roy - Licensed under Creative Commons

Photo by Mark Roy – Licensed under Creative Commons

In my experience, many small business owners do the same thing when they get stuck. They carry on doing the same as they’ve always done, even though they know they need to change course, take another approach, or try a different tactic. Which is where someone like me comes to the rescue. As a consultant, I can bring an objective, external and independent perspective that can help clients navigate away from the problem, and steer them back onto the right track.

The Inflexion Point

The typical scenario is that the business is faltering. Most often it’s about sales and business development – either not enough new customers, or too few of the “right” customers (and too many of the “wrong” ones). Sometimes it’s about an aspect of their strategy that isn’t working. It could be a problem with their operations, such as workflow, resourcing or IT systems. Or it might be that they have lost their way and are facing some sort of external challenge. Or maybe there is a disconnect between the products and services that they offer, and what their customers actually need. Or it could be a need to recast their financial information to get a better idea of how the business is really tracking.

Whatever the issue, the common feature is a point of inflexion – the business is either stuck, has hit a plateau, or come to a fork in the road.

So, how do they get help?

The 3-Step Recovery Program

First, the client has to realise that doing the same thing won’t work, doing nothing is not an option, and they have to be open to the idea of change. They recognise that bringing in some external help will relieve the log jam (even though at this stage, they don’t know what form that help will take, or where it will come from).

Second, they do some basic research, or get a referral from their networks, on where they can get help. Much of my work comes via word-of-mouth and personal contacts, and in large part this is due to the need for trust in any consulting relationship. Sometimes, a prospective client has liked something they read in my blog, or heard something in our conversation that has clicked with their own needs. There has to be a connection or match with what the business needs, and what someone like me can offer. It’s a bit like finding a GP, financial planner or personal trainer – there has to be a fit.

Third, they are able to define a specific problem that needs addressing, or at least prioritize the issues. This requires some reflection, self-awareness, and willingness to have their assumptions challenged. There is a need for honesty, and even vulnerability, if the intervention is going to succeed.

Helping clients get back on track

I will say upfront that my services are not suited to everyone. If your business is running like a well-oiled machine, I probably can’t add much value, unless you are looking to improve an area of your operations, or embark on a new initiative where you need help in getting it off the ground. Alternatively, I may be able to help if you simply want to tap into some external perspectives to challenge your current thinking, or if you require some specific expertise that draws on my knowledge and experience. Otherwise, my role is to help clients get free of what is bogging them down.

One of my clients recently said that working with me felt like “keyhole” surgery, rather than undergoing open heart surgery. I think I know what he means, and that he meant it as a compliment….. In my experience tackling “the whole” is not always practical. Rather, zooming in on a particular aspect of the business allows for incremental change, that if applied appropriately, can have a multiplier effect. Such an approach is hopefully less disruptive, and therefore less threatening, to the existing business.

As part of my consulting work, I tend to break the business down into its component parts, look at the business model, review the revenue streams, and analyse the workflow, both internal operations and customer-facing services. For example, clients often have a slightly misplaced perception of where/how they add customer value – so, if they spend a lot of time on a particular task or activity, they naturally assume that this should form the greater part of what their customers pay for. Whereas in reality, the customers may value something else the business does, but the business has not realised that value.

It’s always important to encourage clients to develop an action plan, with specific goals, responsibilities and timelines. I’m not talking about a 50-page business plan, but a more manageable working document for the next 6, 12 or 18 months (depending on their circumstances). A key outcome of this is a list of priorities, plus agreement on which activities to wind-down or discontinue. Despite limited resources, businesses often make the mistake of trying to continue doing everything they’ve always done, plus all the new stuff – the law of physics suggests that something has to give, so they need to stop doing things that are no longer relevant, or are no longer working.

Making a Difference

When it comes to more direct business coaching, I know from the client feedback I receive that the insights I offer and the way I reframe their situation are as valuable as a re-engineered business plan. By analysing the problem, taking it apart and putting it back together again, it allows me to share my observations and offer fresh thinking – which is sometimes all the client may need to get back on track.

If you feel your own business could use some external assistance in getting back on track, or if you think you may be stuck as to what to do next, please get in touch via this blog.

Next week: The David and Goliath of #Startup #Pitching

Management Consulting 101 (or: Think Before you Tinker About)

Management consulting often gets a bad rep because practitioners typically come into an organisation knowing that there’s a problem that needs fixing, but spend too much time playing with their toolkit, or taking things apart, rather than focussing on practical solutions to the issue at hand.

HowThingsWork Worse still, consultants often disappear without finishing the job, leaving someone else to clear up their mess and patch up the damage afterwards. Until the next round of management consultants come in.

As consultants, when we are invited into a client’s place of business, we are placed in a highly privileged and trusted position, one that we must not abuse or take for granted. Yes, we are there to identify problems and help develop solutions, and in some cases we are given the responsibility of implementing them. But in our eagerness to deconstruct an organisation, we can overlook the need for some foresight and advance planning.

When analysing a client’s operations, and before making any recommendations for strategic change or process improvement, I often recall the words of my father, who was a mechanical engineer. At a young age, I had dismantled a clockwork motor (to see how it worked) – but then found it was impossible to reassemble all the cogs. He simply said:

“Before you take something apart, know how to put it back together again.”