The limits of speciality

I haven’t blogged for ten days. Sometimes, life just happens. I’m surprised by how much I miss it – I hadn’t realised how much it helps to get thoughts down and take the risk of publishing them – a sort of self appraisal.

What took me away was interesting – something I’ve been looking at for a while suddenly turned up, like London buses, three at once. Hardly scientific evidence, but nonetheless it gave me pause for thought.

One of the traditional key rules of Coaching is to help the client think through issues within their own resources. For the most part that works, but not last week for me or them.

All three clients displayed different versions of the same issues.

The limits of specialisation.

Three different areas – a technology business, a service business, and a healthcare business. The technology business is a tightly focused specialist, the service business a sector specialist and the Healthcare business an animal specialist. The problem? – an apparent lack “peripheral vision”. They could not see effectively outside their “cone of expertise”, and “join the dots” when the challenge involves elements outside their specialist domain.

For many years, we have pursued the cult of specialism – deep expertise within a domain that enables us to provide answers quickly and effectively, and differentiate ourselves from others without our expertise.

That has been fine when things have been relatively stable, in what educationalists term “kind” learning environments. We can not only focus, we can follow the “10,000 hours rule”, developing our knowledge and instincts to find answers almost instictively.

However, we are in VUCA conditions, and the learning environment is far from kind. The knowledge bank that specialists, from Lawyers to Legislators have accumulated can now be replicated increasingly effectively via data science and AI.

Experience defined in terms of knowledge is edging rapidly towards the window. At the same time, the environment becomes far more volatile – the protection offered by trade bodies, professional associations and the like erodes. As communication becomes ubiquitous, technology connects everything to everything (and everyone) else the gaps in our markets that can be exploited by clever, well resourced, innovative, and sometimes criminal organisations and become increasingly disruptive.

Specialists, looking through their professional microscopes, do not see the bigger picture. They can become trapped in the worldview that has brought them success. They are partially sighted.

We are perhaps seeing the return of the generalist – someone with shallower expertise but much broader awareness and with less investment in their specialism. Someone who can cast their view wide, join the dots, and help the specialists see what they cannot see on their own.

From a coaching perspective, it’s an interesting challenge. My pre-coaching background is as a generalist – I have operated in a wide variety of environments, in many different cultures, mostly in areas that are emerging, preparing the ground for the specialists.

Now, what is required of me seems to be changing – to not only coach the individual to make the most of their inherent capabilities, but to introduce them to things beyond their specialist horizon, and help them make sense of it. To become something of an explorer on their behalf. To put my generalist capabilities at their service.

Specialists, left to their own devices, will continue to mine the seam they are in until it is close to exhaustion. Generalists, left to their own devices, will find new seams, but need the specialists to mine them.

In the current environment, success seems likely to belong to those who can sit effectively in the space between the generalists and the specialists to bring new opportunity into being.

Opportunity for those who can sit in this liminal space.