Why Specialization Isn’t the Best Path for Tech Leaders

You’ve likely been told that deep specialization in a particular technology or industry is the path to success. For most tech leaders, that’s probably not the case.
February 4, 2022
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You’ve probably been told that specialization is the path to success for most of your career. This likely started in university or earlier, as you were asked to select a field of study and quickly focus on courses relevant to that field. 

If you majored in Computer Science, perhaps you took incredibly useful and pertinent classes of programming languages like Fortran, Pascal, or C, diligently learning tools and techniques that were obsolete shortly after you finished the final exam.

If you specialized in a business field like marketing or accounting, it was assumed and encouraged to avoid “distractions” like history classes, philosophy, or even imminently practical pursuits like public speaking.

The popular press seems to support this position, with books like Outliers and Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother suggesting that early specialization is the best approach to success, the latter even suggesting that learning to play an instrument is a foolhardy pursuit if not started around the time a child first learns to speak.

To get to your current leadership position, perhaps you immersed yourself deeply in your industry, aiming to learn every aspect of your company and its position in the industry. If you’re a technically-oriented leader, you might have spent years honing your ability to implement a particular software package module or earned your leadership chops through deep knowledge of a methodology like Agile.

The Specialization Problem

The problem with deep, early specialization is that it creates individuals with an exquisitely crafted hammer rather than a diverse, well-equipped toolbox. As the saying goes, when the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.

You’ve likely heard the anecdote, but there is real-world evidence to support it. One of the more intriguing examples is a Harvard Medical School study finding that heart attack sufferers who received treatment when cardiologists were away at an academic conference were more likely to survive.

The researchers discovered that interventional cardiologists had spent years developing a “hammer” of invasive surgery in response to heart attacks. When a patient arrived at their hospital with a heart problem, their primary response was risky invasive surgery that ultimately caused more deaths than avoiding the surgery.

It’s easy to identify similar trends in technology. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, large Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) implementations were the answer to every business problem. Often the technology equivalent to open-heart surgery, dozens of high-profile failures ranged from costly missteps to cases where businesses were nearly shuttered when unable to perform basic transactions and manufacture or ship products.

You’ve likely witnessed an expert in a particular approach that applied their “hammer” regardless of relevance, or perhaps you’ve been guilty of attempting to use a favorite or frequently-used tool or approach to problems that aren’t a good fit. Whether it’s a vendor-specific “shop” where any answer is acceptable to an organization that mandates the approach to every problem, these experts stifle innovation and collaboration and often hamstring more than they help.

The Benefits of Being Broad

Leaders with broad experience across industries, companies, and technologies can draw on a vast body of knowledge to help their teams problem-solve. This is especially relevant in emerging areas from digital transformation to machine learning. Intriguingly, elements of machine learning were developed by mixing biology and neuroscience with computer science, 2 seemingly unrelated fields that resulted in neural network-based AI modeled from the neurons in our brains.

Similarly, broad knowledge allows anything from a business model to an interesting process or practice to be applied to multiple domains. Most innovation originates from someone applying an approach or technology that already exists to a different problem or domain.

Developing Broad Knowledge

The benefits of a broad pool of knowledge might seem attractive yet challenging to acquire, especially if you’re in a role or industry that’s highly focused on specialization. However, you need not spend years of study to apply broad thinking to your organization’s current challenges.

Start by engaging with coworkers outside your usual routines. If your tech team is focused on finance, make a point of speaking with colleagues focused on marketing or logistics.  Ask them to share recent projects or challenges they’re facing. Not only will you be exposed to new knowledge and problem-solving techniques, but your fresh eyes and outside knowledge might provide a spark of new thinking.

Longer-term, look for employees, vendors, and consulting partners that bring a broad set of experiences. Too many employees and consultants attempt to “out expert” their employer or client. Except in rare cases, adding yet another individual with deep experience in the same content area as the rest of your team provides little benefit.

A new hire or a consulting partner with experience in another industry can bring different viewpoints and a new set of tools to your team. These people often challenge assumptions and areas where “we’ve always done it this way.” While this investigation might seem frustrating, rarely does doing the same thing produce a different outcome.

As an individual, strive to expose yourself to new bodies of knowledge, new hobbies, and new ways of thinking. Athletes have long espoused the idea of “cross-training,” engaging in different sports both to reduce repetitive stress and learn new ways to move and use their bodies.

As a long-time runner, I mocked yoga as “unserious” until I began to practice it and found it improved my running, reduced injury, and increased body awareness. The same benefit applies to the professional domain, with mental “cross-training” breaking us out of repetitive motions, raising our awareness of different modes of thinking, and ultimately making us better “athletes” in our leadership role.

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