How cultivating depth and breadth is key for the age of uncertainty.
It’s funny how even ancient ideas can be given a new lease of life. It’s a long way from the 7th century BC and the Greek poet Archilochus to a philosophical tract written by philosopher Isaiah Berlin in 1950s Britain. Nevertheless, it was this fragment of his ancient poetry – “a fox knows many things, but a hedgehog knows one important thing” – that underpins Berlin’s famous, often controversial, essay, The Hedgehog and the Fox.
The basic idea of the essay is simple. Berlin uses the hedgehog–fox idea to divide writers and thinkers into two categories: single-minded hedgehogs, who view the world through the lens of one defining idea, and pluralistic foxes, who draw on a wide variety of experiences and for whom the world cannot be boiled down to a single idea. At the risk of oversimplifying a complex philosophical argument, it’s an appealing idea that there are two contrasting ways of approaching the world around us: either as a more focused specialist (hedgehog) or as a far-ranging generalist (fox).
Archilochus’ hedgehog made another famous appearance in 2001 when Jim Collins published his seminal business book, Good to Great. Collins’ Hedgehog Concept was used as a shorthand for successful companies who really knew how to stick to the knitting, making the most of the clarity provided by a focus on passion, better-than-the rest ability and key economic drivers. The path to greatness, according to Collins, comes from “focusing solely on what you can potentially do better than any other organization”.
But what, we may ask, do an ancient Greek poet, a 1950s philosopher and a 21st-century business thinker have to do with the world of work today. It’s a good question. The answer revolves around our perennial fascination with what makes us successful, and the issue of whether it’s better to nurture either our hedgehog or our fox-like traits to achieve peak performance in our work and our lives, as we plan our careers, and as we look to navigate the uncertainty that characterises the future of work.
Cue Malcolm Gladwell and his 2008 book, Outliers, in which he popularised (some say misrepresented) the ‘10,000-hour rule’ based on K Anders Ericsson’s work on deliberate practice. What Gladwell calls “mastery” requires focus and time; at least 10,000 hours of practice is the key to performing at the top of our game – think of the Beatles learning their craft in Hamburg, or Bill Gates programming those early generation computers.
Not so, says David Epstein, whose 2019 book, Range, turns the deliberate practice theory on its head: for many of the world’s top performers, from professional athletes to Nobel laureates, early and deep specialisation is the exception, not the rule. Rather, they are generalists, sampling a range of interests – even trying and failing – and developing the skills and resilience needed to succeed down the line. That experience tends to make them more creative, more agile and able to make connections that the specialists just don’t see.
Most of the world is ‘not golf’
But maybe the specialist vs generalist/depth vs breadth argument is more complex than a debate about whether we need to be a Tiger Woods, almost born with a golf club in his hands, or a Roger Federer, who tried out a range of sports before opting for tennis. Gladwell himself has defended his argument by placing himself towards the middle of a continuum with pure natural talent at one end and focused deliberate practice at the other.
Epstein, too, admits that much depends on context. His generalists do best in fields that are “more complex and unpredictable”, citing the work of psychologist Robin Hogarth, who differentiates between “kind” learning environments, such as golf or chess, where patterns recur and feedback is unequivocal, and “wicked” environments, where patterns are less easy to establish and feedback is unclear or even non-existent.
Epstein’s view is that most of the world is ‘not golf’, the basis of his argument that, when it comes to tackling the unfamiliar – and prevailing – world of the wicked, a broad range of experience and learning is more useful than ‘kind’ environment specialisation. A similar argument has been used to critique Jim Collins’ Hedgehog Concept: that being a corporate hedgehog may have been all very well at the end of the 20th century, but we might need to channel our more agile inner fox to meet the multifarious challenges of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
While the debate between Gladwell and Epstein has garnered much attention, on the ground the generalists may be losing the argument to a long-standing and universally accepted concept: division of labour. First identified by classical economist Adam Smith in 1776’s The Wealth of Nations, the idea that dividing work into smaller tasks performed by specialised workers drives efficiency and economic progress is remarkably resilient.
Even the 18 separate steps needed to make a pin, observed by Adam Smith back in the 18th century, might feel insignificant in the face of hyperspecialisation. It’s a trend made possible by the contemporary advances in cheap, global communication and given particular impetus when the work involved is based on intangible information rather than tangible, physical goods and services.
Management professor Thomas Malone believes that, when work previously done by one person is divided into more-specialised pieces done by multiple people, improvements in quality, speed and cost will follow. It manifests itself in everything from a large-scale system roll-out to being able to delegate those PowerPoint slides to an expert on the other side of the world. It’s the way ahead if we want to take advantage of global economies of scale and to protect jobs in the face of workplace automation.
The software platform TopCoder for example, offers its network of thousands of developers from more than 200 countries the chance to bid for chunked-up bits of software development that play to their particular specialism. Such hyperspecialisation allows TopCoder to provide high-quality, low-cost software development to their clients. And it apparently manages to do this while keeping its community of coders happy and on board.
For Malone, the benefits of hyperspecialisation are not solely the preserve of employers; workers themselves can benefit from greater flexibility in where, when and how they work, developing portfolios of specialist expertise to prevent them from getting bored and forming “guilds” with like-minded specialists to guard against exploitation in “digital sweatshops”.
Lynda Gratton, who has spent many years researching the future of work, also believes in specialisation. In the face of what she calls the “biggest [workplace] transformation ever”, knowing a little bit about a lot of things doesn’t just pit us against the best minds globally; it also puts us in the same space as Wikipedia and Google. Instead, we need to build mastery around what we’re passionate about and focus relentlessly on that if we are to succeed.
It all feels a long way away from Karl Marx’s utopian vision of a society where workers could escape the drudgery of the factory floor by doing a range of different jobs with no “one exclusive sphere of activity”. Or the idea that the increasing specialisation of the jobs market is somehow at odds with our innate sense that we have lots of versions of ourselves, with all the potential that implies. Specialisation might be economically efficient, but might it also be a blight on that potential? And will it really equip us to be those curious, agile and resilient pivoters who can successfully navigate uncertain and unpredictable working lives?
We also need to take into account that, the higher we rise in our organisations, the more we need to understand how our organisations operate holistically – not just internally but also in terms of the dynamics of our sectors and markets. We may start out by mastering the technical skills we need to build a career, but to become leaders, we need to raise our heads and take a more wide-ranging, strategic worldview.
This means embracing what organisational psychologist Herminia Ibarra calls outsight and avoiding the comfort zone perils of her competency trap, our tendency to cleave to what we already do well at the expense of some much-needed future-proofing.
Maybe hyperspecialisation is not the answer, after all.
Depth and breadth: taking a T-shaped approach
So how can we guard against spreading ourselves too thinly while we prepare ourselves for the transition from functional depth to strategic breadth, and the challenges of unpredictability and uncertainty?
According to consultant and coach Nick Lovegrove it’s by cultivating a T-shaped mindset. In his book The Mosaic Principle, Lovegrove makes the case that the deep specialisation that characterises our world – whether in our education systems, business or other professions, such as medicine – makes us uniquely unprepared for the complex, multidimensional challenges that we face. He fears that taking inherently broad-minded people, who want to take the broad view and seek new experiences, and cramming them into specialisms is not just counter-productive, but can be actively damaging.
Lovegrove’s argument is that breadth is often better, both for organisations and individuals. Working in different sectors, industry types or countries, even doing a range of functional jobs in the same organisation, helps to give us more insight and perspective. He calls this “inner diversity”, with individuals able to draw on a range of experiences and worldviews in a way that mirrors the power of diversity and inclusion at an organisational level. For Lovegrove, if more pre-2008 financial crisis bankers had had such inner diversity, for example, the world might not have had to endure the devastating effects of their overconfidence, status quo bias and a tendency for binary (on/off) thinking.
This doesn’t mean that we should become ‘jacks-of-all trades’, randomly walking through life with no solid core. Lovegrove’s preferred answer to the question “Should I be a specialist or a generalist?” is “Yes”: he sees it not as an either/or question but as a both/and requirement.
That’s where the idea of the T comes in, a visual metaphor for a hybrid of breadth and depth. The vertical stroke of the T represents a depth of skill or experience, Lovegrove’s “intellectual thread” that we develop through study and practical experience. It’s the crucial underpinning that helps us to avoid the fate of Lynda Gratton’s Google fodder. We all need to build these robust foundations, find our “why”, our area of expertise, that “secret sauce”.
But that’s just part of the picture; this vertical stroke is not enough on its own: we need the horizontal stroke of the T to bring that range of experiences and perspectives to balance out the depth. Lovegrove believes that it’s never too soon – or too late – to develop a T-shaped mindset, and that the theory holds true whether we’re talking about corporate risk-taking or individual purpose.
Developing a T-shaped mindset
Just as most of us are ambiverts rather than out and out introverts or extroverts, it’s generally not possible or desirable for us to be completely broad or completely deep. Even Isaiah Berlin suggested that we need elements of both the hedgehog and the fox, to act as “hybrid engines” between the two extremes. We might naturally tend towards the broad or the deep, but it’s up to us to decide how and when we choose to do more of the same and when to mix things up.
Leaders with a T-shaped mindset are, according to Lovegrove, able to develop and apply his six core principles:
- The have a strong moral compass, a sense of values that helps them to stay true to themselves when switching between, and adapting to, different circumstances.
- They have that defined intellectual thread.
- They have transferable skills, honed and applicable in a range of contexts.
- They understand contextual intelligence, able to listen, learn and adapt, to read the room and act accordingly.
- They understand the importance of strategic, extended networks and how they can create “structured serendipity”.
- They have a prepared mind, emotionally and intellectually able to flex and change.
That’s not a bad hit-list of skills and experience to which we might aspire as we navigate our age of uncertainty. Even when we’re fairly early in our careers, focused on mastering our intellectual thread, we can still choose to spend some time outside our core area, working on that inner diversity. We might lobby to join a cross-functional project team or ask to work in a different region or country; we might volunteer to act as a mentor or get involved in an industry trade association; we might choose to deploy the skills we have in a different sector or industry. Nor is breadth only associated with what we do at work. What we do in our lives outside work also provides extra perspective, whether that’s a hobby, volunteering or using our expertise in a completely different context, such as being a charity trustee or school governor.
The word polymath literally means “having learnt much”, but it’s most often associated with a person – a so-called Renaissance man (or woman) perhaps – whose knowledge ranges widely, who can draw on a whole host of learning to solve complex problems when the need arises. It reminds us that none of us has to stay in our lane or keep on doing more of the same. In fact, it might not serve us well at all, drawing us into that competency trap. We might instead remember the words of American poet Walt Whitman, celebrating his contradictions with the words “I am large. I contain multitudes”. Or that Winston Churchill won the Nobel Prize for Literature (not Peace) in the immediate aftermath of a war he did much to win. Balancing depth with breadth gives us the permission and perspective to think outside the box, to feel equipped and ready to face future work challenges, whatever form they might take.
Isaiah Berlin may well have wearied of the attention garnered by The Hedgehog and the Fox: “I meant it as a kind of enjoyable intellectual game, but it was taken seriously.” He’s right, though, when he says that “every classification throws light on something”. Whether we tend towards depth or breadth, or prefer specialising to being a generalist, understanding our defaults and the potential of a T-shaped mindset can help us channel our inner Renaissance man or woman. In the words of American journalist Henry Louis Mencken: “You can’t do anything about the length of your life, but you can do something about its width and depth.”
Test your understanding
- Outline the difference between ‘kind’ and ‘wicked’ environments and how they impact on the specialist vs generalist debate.
- Explain what Nick Lovegrove means by “inner diversity”.
What does it mean for you?
- Reflect on whether you naturally tend more towards breadth or depth. Consider what you could do to balance your intellectual thread with more breadth, or your tendency towards breadth with more focus on that intellectual thread.
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