When working with specialists, context is everything.
When I ran a startup, I tended to gravitate towards and hire people with a multi-disciplinary focus. I liked hiring people that wrote code but also understood interaction design. I wanted people who liked managing clients but were also obsessed with data. I liked hiring visual designers who understood marketing strategy. Those sorts of generalists are critical in a start-up, because you don’t have the capital or time to develop a wide variety of specialist functions. You pick your single area of focus and make big investments there, but rely on generalists for the non-core functions. I also think that generalists are more comfortable in the dynamic environment a start-up provides.1
When your company gets to be mid-sized, things change. You’re not quite big enough to have full-on specialist functions throughout the organization, but you’re too big to have a team consisting largely of utility players. People who were once all-in-one coders, testers, and project managers start to move up the food chain and get more focused. And in certain areas of the business where the possibility of eking out some competitive advantage exists, specialists begin to accumulate. This is entirely natural, but it has consequences.
As groups of specialists—more accurately, specialist functions—emerge, there is a concomitant loss of context. Groups of people begin to form who just do data analysis, or just do functional testing, or just write RFPs. If you hire correctly, they begin to do these things really well. But because there’s specialization, and because there’s less organic messiness in the way decisions get made, and just because there are more people, there’s a natural predilection towards increasing the efficiency of the individual specialized function. That team of search engine optimization gods look at each other and say, earnestly, “Let’s do this right. And with the best of intentions, the organization as a whole starts to optimize for its constituent parts instead of the complete entity.
I want to reiterate that this is a natural outcome of the growth process in companies. I’ve seen it happen again and again. It’s nobody’s fault. It is, however, everyone’s responsibility to mitigate the problem. And I’m not a big believer in large, overarching organizational methodologies as a panacea. Be simple and tactical, and develop a distributed solution to the problem. So while you can expect some additional writing on the dangers of over-specialization in future posts, I want to offer here one simple, tactical suggestion that anyone, at any level of your organization, can use to defeat the Context-Loss-from-Specialization problem.
When you’re working with someone who has a very specific type of knowledge and experience, you have to provide them with an easy way to unpack their thinking from the (otherwise useful) blinders imposed by their specialization. The best way to do this is a conversation, and the name for the special kind of conversation I’ve found to be the most effective in this situation is a Television Pilot Conversation.
This is a reference to a scene in Quentin Tarantino’s film, Pulp Fiction. Check it out:
The Television Pilot Conversation has two purposes, one relatively straightforward, and the other constituted by an ulterior motive. The straightforward purpose is to clearly and succinctly describe the context for the person lacking context. The more sneaky and sub-textual purpose is to remind that person that there are actual other humans out there operating with completely different sets of considerations, familiar with entire bodies of knowledge and experience, possessing skills equally as important or impressive as theirs, that should be taken into account. Now.
Television Pilot Conversations may take place on a one-to-one basis, or in large groups. The more deadpan the delivery (Samuel L. Jackson being the ideal to strive for here), the better. The more use of humor or irony, the better. The more familiar the person on the receiving end is with this particular scene in Pulp Fiction, the better. Here’s a convenient short URL for your distribution pleasure:
The beauty of the Television Pilot Conversation is that anyone in the organization can deliver it to anyone else. It knows no bureaucratic strictures. It transcends seniority, hierarchy, and age. It requires no internal branding campaign, no corporate communications, no brown bag session, no long, boring meeting. It’s context in its most concentrated form, with a format guaranteed to generate results.
- Frankly, I just plain like being around people who mix their chocolate and peanut-butter. Amongst even the most highly specialized people, an intense second interest—cf. correlation between superb software engineers that are also talented musicians—is often a good indicator of robust capabilities elsewhere. [↩]