The Hidden Danger of Knowing What You’re Doing…

 

My parents built their own houses. They also designed and built a small hydroelectric dam, canned bears and constructed an arctic runway large enough (barely) to land C130s. My parents weren’t engineers or contractors or food scientists. My mother’s PhD was in the History of the Philosophy of Science and my father’s was in Operations Research. Their lives and experiences were enriched by a simple belief: if you have a good enough liberal arts education, you can learn to do anything from a book.

In a way, my parents turned back time. When anthropologists study the development of human society they often to turn to specialization and hierarchy as key signs of civilizational maturity. With specialization, families stop having to do everything from hunting to basic tool building. Instead, each person can focus on one activity and exchange the benefits of their efforts with those who focus on other activities. Blacksmiths can excel at making tools, farmers at making food and so on. In our modern era, this concept of specialization has become ever more critical. There are degrees and certifications that cover almost every possible human activity – from bricklaying to computer programming to astrobiology. It is only by gathering together in a vast online community that we can assemble the enormous array of specialists necessary for modern culture and industry to flourish.

My parents moved in exactly the opposite direction. In order to survive, they had to become far more self-sufficient than is normal in modern times. They engaged in small-scale farming, they hunted and canned animals, they built homes, dammed streams, and harvested honey. My great uncle, who lived alongside them, worked with iron, copper, ivory, and wood to create artistic and practical masterpieces.

One of my great-uncle’s creations – a samovar

My parents weren’t truly self-sufficient. When they could get out of the river canyon they lived in, they purchased industrially-produced food, clothing and materials like piping. My father made the money necessary for these items trading mining company shares via ship-to-shore radio. Despite these concessions to the modern world, they engaged in a far broader range of activities than is normal today.

Their stories are great (and sometimes horrifying), but is there value in what they did? Given that human society advances through the process of specialization, were they achieving anything at all?

Oddly, the answer is in the question itself. The process of specialization, after all, is only a symptom of development. It is not its cause. The process of ever-greater specialization is often driven by people who step outside the constraints of pre-existing specialties.

Today machine-learning specialists are all the rage. They are only the rage because people who studied the intersection of neural processing, language learning and computer science — effectively non-specialists — managed to create a new specialty. The mass manufactured clothing my parents purchased only became a reality because of people who combined knowledge of materials (namely cotton and wool) with that of mechanics and pre-electric hydropower. They reached across specializations to see new possibilities.

In our modern age, we elevate one particular kind of generalist: entrepreneurs. Invariably, successful entrepreneurs see what didn’t exist before and then make it a reality. Whether they are filling an existing market need or creating an entirely new market, they can step outside pre-defined boundaries.

Today, every effort is being made to make the act of creating new specialties into its own specialty. There are books that guide you through the process of market definition, funding, human resources management and exits. In fact, since the boom of venture capital in the late 1990s, the process of developing a company has become increasingly standardized and specialized. Being able to work within that standardized reality can yield significant benefits – most critically by enabling the startup company to focus on a much narrower problem set. Instead of every entrepreneur having to essentially reinvent how companies are built, there are increasingly standardized ways of doing most everything. As a result, the roles of Founders, Chief Marketing Officers, Chief Technology Officers, Heads of Product etc… have become increasingly specialized and standardized.

The entrepreneur relies on a multi-specialist’s skill in their moment of insight. Afterwards, though, they become company-building specialists. The best of them have started multiple companies — making a career of building new entities. The entrepreneur’s characteristics of risk tolerance, confidence, salesmanship, management talent and a desire for a big payday easily eclipse that of being able to see beyond our existing reality.

In fact, even their moment of insight often has to be firmly grounded in what people already know. For example, when raising money, it is always best to describe your company as combining pre-existing concepts (e.g. “this is the Netflix of Kitty Litter”).

I wonder how Netflix described itself?

In 2018, the DuffleBlog (a military-focused satire site) published a piece titled: Army standardizes ‘thinking outside the box’ procedures. Today, I have numerous friends who specialize in just this: they help organizations and companies develop standardized procedures for encouraging innovation.

The world of hiring, driven by machine-based analysis, reinforces a reality in which the true generalist, with his or her highly unusual capability for systemic innovation, is largely unseen. There are no computer programs that find people who can see what doesn’t yet exist.

Just try searching LinkedIn for somebody who can deliver unexpected value.

Despite all of this, we haven’t yet reached the point where the true generalist has no part to play. A lack of awareness — reinforced by our desire to quantify and standardize everything — is not the same thing as a lack of need. To see the part the generalist still has to play, we just have to look past the entrepreneur. Instead of focusing on the attributes of risk tolerance, financial ambition or salesmanship, we need to focus on creativity itself. This process will lead us to discover the deployment of generalized skills in far more mundane places. A classic, but limited, example is in car manufacturing. Toyota started with an inefficient process and enabled their production-workers (very few of whom had degrees in industrial process engineering) to suggest small improvements to that process. Before long these specialists in screwing in bolts or painting metal had delivered one of the highest quality and most efficient systems in the world.

They worked beyond their specialty to deliver unpredictable value.

While their example is quite limited (they were coming up with better ways of doing jobs they were already doing), it is still illustrative.

Now, imagine filling a role in quality control, finance, computer programming or market analysis with a generalist who has a strong capability for learning. If you do this, and empower them as Toyota empowered its workers, something unexpected will happen. Your hire, who often won’t have the risk tolerance or financial ambition of an entrepreneur, will address a wide range of needs in inherently innovative ways that yield unexpected — and unpredictable — value.

The attempt to systemize innovation itself reminds me of the reactions to the mechanical clock as it spread across Europe. In many places, the clock was associated with the divine, giving order and structure to life. This reflects a determinist world view, where every human gear has its place.

However, reactions to the clock were not always positive. In a motif that would truly resonate in the age of industry, the Devil was seen enslaving humanity through the measurement of time.

This conception argues that humans should not be gears — even if we are able to make them so.

The Tramp working on the giant machine (Wikimedia Commons)

When I think about the future of society, I hope room will remain for the generalist. This is not simply to satisfy my own professional ambitions (I am an extreme generalist), it is also because I am sympathetic to that Scottish vision of the Devil.

Healthy human organizations, whether they are individual businesses or the manifestation of our global culture, are not simply made up of cogs. Instead, healthy human organizations are defined by constant, organic and unpredictable change. That change is often enabled by those who do not specialize.

In other words, by working with generalists, you will make room for realities you cannot yet imagine.

The results are almost guaranteed to surprise you.

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  1. David C. Broussard Coolidge
    David C. Broussard
    @Dbroussa

    There is a nasty secret about specialization that few think about.  When civilization is interrupted by a natural disaster, war, or financial disruption, the ability to specialize may disappear.  It is kind of like Maslow’s hierarchy of Needs.  It is only in a highly developed and stable society that we can have specialists in esoteric things.  That person who has a degree in Computer Science (like I do) can only really put that degree to use in a society where they are using computers.  Take away reliable electricity, or reliable internet and suddenly the value of my specialization drops precipitously.  As a counterpoint, take a skilled carpenter.  In a highly specialized world where furniture and similar items are made by machines (courtesy of that Comp Sci degree person), a skilled carpenter has minimal value unless they make artistic or otherwise rare items.  They cannot compete with the machines in a production line for price.  When that production breaks down for whatever reason (like living in places like rural Alaska, or many places outside of the First World) a skilled carpenter becomes very valuable to the community.  We see this in entertainment in post-apocalyptic stories like The Last of Us, The Walking Dead, or The Postman…where the heroes often have these types of skills that most people do not. I remember reading a wonderful alternate history series by S.M. Stirling where the survivors of the main three groups were a wilderness guide and pilot, a Renaissance faire participant who owned a small secluded valley, and a University Professor who was very active in the SCA and had the ethics of a snake.  Each survived because they had skills that gave them little advantage in the modern world, but proved to be a massive benefit when all modern equipment stopped working.

    • #1
  2. Randy Weivoda Moderator
    Randy Weivoda
    @RandyWeivoda

    JosephCox: They also designed and built a small hydroelectric dam, canned bears and constructed an artic runway large enough (barely) to land C130s.

    It never occurred to me that people canned bears, but they do.

    • #2
  3. JosePluma, Local Man of Mystery Coolidge
    JosePluma, Local Man of Mystery
    @JosePluma

    Randy Weivoda (View Comment):

    JosephCox: They also designed and built a small hydroelectric dam, canned bears and constructed an artic runway large enough (barely) to land C130s.

    It never occurred to me that people canned bears, but they do.

    When I first saw that, I thought it was a typo but couldn’t figure out what the correct word was supposed to be.

    • #3
  4. Randy Weivoda Moderator
    Randy Weivoda
    @RandyWeivoda

    JosePluma, Local Man of Mystery (View Comment):

    Randy Weivoda (View Comment):

    JosephCox: They also designed and built a small hydroelectric dam, canned bears and constructed an artic runway large enough (barely) to land C130s.

    It never occurred to me that people canned bears, but they do.

    When I first saw that, I thought it was a typo but couldn’t figure out what the correct word was supposed to be.

    I was thinking “pears” but the P and B are so far apart on the keyboard, I reckoned Joseph actually did mean bears.

    • #4
  5. mildlyo Member
    mildlyo
    @mildlyo

    Their lives and experiences were enriched by a simple belief: if you have a good enough liberal arts education, you can learn to do anything from a book.

     

    Oh, Bravi! These are words we should all strive to live by.

    • #5
  6. David C. Broussard Coolidge
    David C. Broussard
    @Dbroussa

    Randy Weivoda (View Comment):

    JosePluma, Local Man of Mystery (View Comment):

    Randy Weivoda (View Comment):

    JosephCox: They also designed and built a small hydroelectric dam, canned bears and constructed an artic runway large enough (barely) to land C130s.

    It never occurred to me that people canned bears, but they do.

    When I first saw that, I thought it was a typo but couldn’t figure out what the correct word was supposed to be.

    I was thinking “pears” but the P and B are so far apart on the keyboard, I reckoned Joseph actually did mean bears.

    I read it as beans.

    • #6
  7. JosephCox Coolidge
    JosephCox
    @JosephCox

    Canned bears. No typo.

    My mom’s book (about Idaho) is A River Went out of Eden

    My follow-up (covers the broader story until the present day) is A Multi Colored Coat.

    • #7
  8. JosephCox Coolidge
    JosephCox
    @JosephCox

    David C. Broussard (View Comment):

    There is a nasty secret about specialization that few think about. When civilization is interrupted by a natural disaster, war, or financial disruption, the ability to specialize may disappear. It is kind of like Maslow’s hierarchy of Needs. It is only in a highly developed and stable society that we can have specialists in esoteric things. That person who has a degree in Computer Science (like I do) can only really put that degree to use in a society where they are using computers. Take away reliable electricity, or reliable internet and suddenly the value of my specialization drops precipitously. As a counterpoint, take a skilled carpenter. In a highly specialized world where furniture and similar items are made by machines (courtesy of that Comp Sci degree person), a skilled carpenter has minimal value unless they make artistic or otherwise rare items. They cannot compete with the machines in a production line for price. When that production breaks down for whatever reason (like living in places like rural Alaska, or many places outside of the First World) a skilled carpenter becomes very valuable to the community. We see this in entertainment in post-apocalyptic stories like The Last of Us, The Walking Dead, or The Postman…where the heroes often have these types of skills that most people do not. I remember reading a wonderful alternate history series by S.M. Stirling where the survivors of the main three groups were a wilderness guide and pilot, a Renaissance faire participant who owned a small secluded valley, and a University Professor who was very active in the SCA and had the ethics of a snake. Each survived because they had skills that gave them little advantage in the modern world, but proved to be a massive benefit when all modern equipment stopped working.

    I wrote a story about this: The Kansas City Apocalypse. Maybe I’ll stick it up here at some point :) 

    • #8
  9. JustmeinAZ Member
    JustmeinAZ
    @JustmeinAZ

    JosePluma, Local Man of Mystery (View Comment):

    Randy Weivoda (View Comment):

    JosephCox: They also designed and built a small hydroelectric dam, canned bears and constructed an artic runway large enough (barely) to land C130s.

    It never occurred to me that people canned bears, but they do.

    When I first saw that, I thought it was a typo but couldn’t figure out what the correct word was supposed to be.

    Beans!

    • #9
  10. David Foster Member
    David Foster
    @DavidFoster

    One thing about specialization: the more you segment the fundamental work, the more coordination work is required to pull the pieces together.  Frederick Taylor’s “scientific managment” called for breaking the work of a factory into simple tasks that just about anyone could do; this required, however, a whole infrastructure of planners, time-study people, expeditors, etc.

    • #10
  11. Juliana Member
    Juliana
    @Juliana

    JosephCox:

    The entrepreneur relies on a multi-specialist’s skill in their moment of insight. Afterwards, though, they become company-building specialists. The best of them have started multiple companies — making a career of building new entities. The entrepreneur’s characteristics of risk tolerance, confidence, salesmanship, management talent and a desire for a big payday easily eclipse that of being able to see beyond our existing reality.

    One of my grandsons will be attending college for “business” in September. It doesn’t matter what type of business it is, he just wants to get some basics because he sees himself as an entrepreneur. He wants it to be his own business, just not sure what that will be yet. Of all the kids and grandkids we have he is the one you look at and listen to and say – he is the billionaire of the family. He  definitely already has the above qualities. He is also generally unperturbable (hardly anything is a ‘big deal’), and thinks deeply but says little.

     A classic, but limited, example is in car manufacturing. Toyota started with an inefficient process and enabled their production-workers (very few of whom had degrees in industrial process engineering) to suggest small improvements to that process. Before long these specialists in screwing in bolts or painting metal had delivered one of the highest quality and most efficient systems in the world.

    They worked beyond their specialty to deliver unpredictable value.

    While their example is quite limited (they were coming up with better ways of doing jobs they were already doing), it is still illustrative.

    One of the things I have never understood is when organizations decide that ‘experts’ or specialists, if you will, that swoop in for a day or two,  not knowing your circumstances or process, are the ones who know best how to make your organization more efficient or productive. It is the person in the trenches, the ones who have to work that process day in and day out, that can tell you how to improve. But few in management want to listen to the ‘grunts.’ Unfortunately there is a chasm between management and worker that often turns adversarial when the workers are not valued for their input.

    • #11
  12. Steven Seward Member
    Steven Seward
    @StevenSeward

    JosephCox:

    My parents built their own houses. They also designed and built a small hydroelectric dam, canned bears and constructed an arctic runway large enough (barely) to land C130s.

    When I saw the above sentence, I thought it must have been a typo for “canned pears.”  Then I looked at the author’s name and realized, yep, they did can bears!

    I read your mother’s book “A River Went out of Eden.”  It was possibly the most fascinating autobiography that I’ve ever read in my life.  I managed to send her an e-mail praising her book and got a pleasant reply before she passed away.

    • #12
  13. David Foster Member
    David Foster
    @DavidFoster

    re specialization and complexity:  my post Coupling.

     

    • #13
  14. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    JustmeinAZ (View Comment):

    JosePluma, Local Man of Mystery (View Comment):

    Randy Weivoda (View Comment):

    JosephCox: They also designed and built a small hydroelectric dam, canned bears and constructed an artic runway large enough (barely) to land C130s.

    It never occurred to me that people canned bears, but they do.

    When I first saw that, I thought it was a typo but couldn’t figure out what the correct word was supposed to be.

    Beans!

    People do can meat and they do eat bear. (I’ve done the latter, and I’ve seen jars of home-canned rattlesnake meat. ) Having read one of the family books I figured he meant what he wrote. 

    • #14
  15. TBA Coolidge
    TBA
    @RobtGilsdorf

    Randy Weivoda (View Comment):

    JosephCox: They also designed and built a small hydroelectric dam, canned bears and constructed an artic runway large enough (barely) to land C130s.

    It never occurred to me that people canned bears, but they do.

    You just need really large jars. 

    • #15
  16. JosephCox Coolidge
    JosephCox
    @JosephCox

    Juliana (View Comment):
    But few in management want to listen to the ‘grunts.’ Unfortunately there is a chasm between management and worker that often turns adversarial when the workers are not valued for their input.

    My job for a while was just this. To go listen to the grunts and then propose something and have the grunts point out all the flaws and then redo it a few times until it was right.

    I encountered traditional management consultants who’s low-level reports would flood a client to ‘listen’ to the grunts by way of showing that they’d filled in sufficient interview hours to reach their pre-existing and often ridiculous conclusions. They didn’t come back for grunt feedback on their conclusions – although management had the good sense to ignore a fair number of them.

    • #16
  17. Caryn Thatcher
    Caryn
    @Caryn

    JosephCox (View Comment):

    Canned bears. No typo.

    My mom’s book (about Idaho) is A River Went out of Eden.

    My follow-up (covers the broader story until the present day) is A Multi Colored Coat.

    Both excellent books, as are Joseph’s mom’s other writings.  His, too.  He learned well.

    • #17
  18. CarolJoy, Not So Easy To Kill Coolidge
    CarolJoy, Not So Easy To Kill
    @CarolJoy

    What a spectacular post about two spectacular parents.

    BTW, I experienced Silicon Valley in the period of time right after it began.

    So I read this paragraph with interest: “Today, every effort is being made to make the act of creating new specialties into its own specialty. There are books that guide you through the process of market definition, funding, human resources management and exits. In fact, since the boom of venture capital in the late 1990s, the process of developing a company has become increasingly standardized and specialized. Being able to work within that standardized reality can yield significant benefits – most critically by enabling the startup company to focus on a much narrower problem set. Instead of every entrepreneur having to essentially reinvent how companies are built, there are increasingly standardized ways of doing most everything. As a result, the roles of Founders, Chief Marketing Officers, Chief Technology Officers, Heads of Product etc… have become increasingly specialized and standardized.”

    In Silicon Valley, the people who did the magical inventive work that brought humanity the first personal computers, as well as the first group of software efforts such that people could use data bases, spreadsheets, and write up documents,  had not only come up with these products, they had also built up sizeable and  well run companies.

    Then in far too many of these cases, someone would tell the owner/inventor that it would be best to hire some MBA’s to come in and develop business strategies as well as  run the company’s operations.

    Reluctantly the company founder would do that.

    And then the 60 day wonder who came in fresh out of his MBA program  would run that company’s operations right into the ground!!

    • #18
  19. JosephCox Coolidge
    JosephCox
    @JosephCox

    CarolJoy, Not So Easy To Kill (View Comment):

     

    Then in far too many of these cases, someone would tell the owner/inventor that it would be best to hire some MBA’s to come in and develop business strategies as well as  run the company’s operations.

    Reluctantly the company founder would do that.

    And then the 60 day wonder who came in fresh out of his MBA program  would run that company’s operations right into the ground!!

    (Almost) any fresh out of school MBA would screw this up. In fact, I don’t think MBA programs do much for actual management. It doesn’t mean management processes/skills can’t be acquired and siloed etc… I didn’t get an MBA, but I did get a finance degree to provide myself with a very specific skillset.

    • #19
  20. Headedwest Coolidge
    Headedwest
    @Headedwest

    JosephCox (View Comment):

    CarolJoy, Not So Easy To Kill (View Comment):

     

    Then in far too many of these cases, someone would tell the owner/inventor that it would be best to hire some MBA’s to come in and develop business strategies as well as run the company’s operations.

    Reluctantly the company founder would do that.

    And then the 60 day wonder who came in fresh out of his MBA program would run that company’s operations right into the ground!!

    (Almost) any fresh out of school MBA would screw this up. In fact, I don’t think MBA programs do much for actual management. It doesn’t mean management processes/skills can’t be acquired and siloed etc… I didn’t get an MBA, but I did get a finance degree to provide myself with a very specific skillset.

    The MBA was created for a specific type of situation: you have a person with technical knowledge (chemist, engineer, etc.) who is moving up to a point in their career where there will be a need for business knowledge to move from a technology job to a managerial and possible executive role. 

    Of course this is a limited pool, so schools started admitting people with undergraduate business majors (which is often kind of silly) and then people with any major at all. 

    • #20
  21. JosephCox Coolidge
    JosephCox
    @JosephCox

    Headedwest (View Comment):

     

    The MBA was created for a specific type of situation: you have a person with technical knowledge (chemist, engineer, etc.) who is moving up to a point in their career where there will be a need for business knowledge to move from a technology job to a managerial and possible executive role. 

    I think it can also work in existing management structures. MBAs fit in major corporations, for example. But typically they must have both experience in management and the MBA tools to be useful.

    That said, you can get the experience after the MBA – just presenting yourself as the answer to all things with the degree alone (or not terribly relevant experience before) isn’t that useful.

    That all said, I’m not a manager of people. I’m an manager of ideas and structures. So I respect that don’t have the skills to do this sort of management :) I just suspect even an MBA wouldn’t help me.

    • #21
  22. Headedwest Coolidge
    Headedwest
    @Headedwest

    JosephCox (View Comment):

    Headedwest (View Comment):

     

    The MBA was created for a specific type of situation: you have a person with technical knowledge (chemist, engineer, etc.) who is moving up to a point in their career where there will be a need for business knowledge to move from a technology job to a managerial and possible executive role.

    I think it can also work in existing management structures. MBAs fit in major corporations, for example. But typically they must have both experience in management and the MBA tools to be useful.

    That said, you can get the experience after the MBA – just presenting yourself as the answer to all things with the degree alone (or not terribly relevant experience before) isn’t that useful.

    That all said, I’m not a manager of people. I’m a manager of ideas and structures. So I respect that I don’t have the skills to do this sort of management :) I just suspect even an MBA wouldn’t help me.

    The resident MBA programs (except for the top few) are struggling for students. Too long, too expensive. What are popping up all over are more narrowly defined MS programs that take less time and money — things like IT-focused programs or Business Analytics or Data Analysis. Finance and accounting do this, too.

    If you have a large enough corporation in the neighborhood, you can create a graduate program to just employees of that company.

    Night course MBA programs for working adult students are still a viable market, so far.

    • #22
  23. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    All of the ills of modern society are linked to specialization.   (Note that “linked” is a pretty broad term and can cover a lot of types of relationships.) 

    • #23
  24. JosephCox Coolidge
    JosephCox
    @JosephCox

    Headedwest (View Comment):

    What are popping up all over are more narrowly defined MS programs that take less time and money — things like IT-focused programs or Business Analytics or Data Analysis. Finance and accounting do this, too.

     

    This kind of reflects the trend of increasing specialization. The ‘be an entrepreneur’ specialization is seen as too broad for many and so even it is broken down. It makes for selectively useful people, but the broadness of an MBA (or something far beyond an MBA) risks being lost.

    • #24
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