Lessons Learned From Range: How Generalists Triumph in a Specialised World – Part 4

Range : How Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, Hardback Book

https://www.hive.co.uk/Product/David-Epstein/Range–How-Generalists-Triumph-in-a-Specialized-World/23483102

Shake Things Up Occasionally

The older a company gets, the more rigid the culture gets. Employees have new ideas less often and things get done the same way. Certain ideas, become the “company way” of doing things. There is no perfect company culture, so change is necessary for growth.

People Don’t Like Change

Epstein tells us about a study about wildfire firefighters. In wildfires, the fire can spread fast. The firefighters need to sprint to escape and even then they can be too slow. Dropping their tools would increase their running speed, but many don’t. It may not be a conscious decision, but to them, dropping their tools is dropping being a firefighter. Even though, it could save their lives. This instinct not to change, is hard to overcome.

Simple Changes Can Make a Big Difference

Your company may be brilliant at improvising solutions, but a bit slapdash. Hiring someone by-the-book, who knows industry standards could give your company some needed structure. This new structure could help stop sloppy mistakes.

The opposite is true if your team can maintain consistent, high-quality work. They may be stuck in their ways, unable to handle a sudden change, say a global pandemic. Someone who can adapt to the unexpected may make your team more flexible.

Good Ideas Can be Found Everywhere

David Epstein tells the story of Frances Hesselbein, the most successful CEO of the Girl Scouts to date. Hesselbein joined the Girl Scouts never having been a C-suite employee, nor did she have formal business training. Hesselbein knew that the higher up a company you are, the less you know about the day-to-day. She wanted to make changes with real benefits. She couldn’t work every job to get the knowledge of the company at every step of the ladder. Hesselbein had a radical idea, she would take ideas from all levels of the Girl Scouts. No-one was too junior to give their opinion and good ideas got rewards. The higher-ups were still the decision makers, but idea generation was company wide. This method led her to her being the most respected CEO of the Girl Scouts of all time.

How Specialisation Ruined Science

Science is currently facing a “replication crisis”, scientists can’t recreate each other’s results in experiment. Getting the same results each time is key to proving something is true. So no replication = no truth.

David Epstein argues that a cause of this crisis is that scientists hyper-specialise so fast, they don’t learnt to think. Scientists have limited time, they can learn deep and narrow to progress, or they can learn broadly and risk falling behind in their career. This deep, narrow specialisation leads to silos of knowledge. Each expert understand their narrow field but nothing that falls outside that boundary.

Imagine you asked mathematicians to judge the gymnastics at the Olympics. The scores would be nonsense. They don’t have the expertise to judge one gymnast from another. This is what it’s like trying to get hyper-specialised scientists to peer-review each other’s work.

Peer-review is the process of scientists judging each other’s work. The idea, is that if scientists can find flaws in each other’s methods, the work being reviewed can be improved. If you don’t understand someone’s work, you can’t be an accurate judge. So flawed science passes review without anyone realising. Later, millions of studies can’t be replicated, leading to the crisis!

Connect Ideas to Make New Discoveries

Epstein says that most ground-breaking discoveries happen when two fields overlap. The issue with hyper-specialisation, is there is no overlap. No overlap, means no discoveries from combining fields.

The grants process discourages research into overlapping fields. Scientists review grants. More scientists than ever are specialists. Specialists see value in specialised work, so they grant specialist research. So specialised work continues to grow and broad work doesn’t.

Specialisation isn’t the Enemy, Speed is

Epstein doesn’t hate specialists, but there’s no rush. He says we will all specialise to some extent in the end. You need to specialise to gain depth in any subject. His main lesson is don’t worry about that you’re progressing too slow.

Late-starters take longer to progress, but they often end up with greater success and longer careers. Cross-boundary science papers don’t get lots of citations immediately. They’re not overnight successes. But often, they get cited for longer and overtake the specialised papers.

Most “smash-hit” science papers overlapped topics.

Neils Bohr didn’t go straight into quantum physics. He ended up becoming the greatest quantum physicist of the 20th century. Bohr continued to learn subjects outside of science all his life. Einstein started as a patent clerk whilst he developed his ideas of relativity. Both late starters, both great successes.

Experimentation for the win!

Wicked environments don’t compare to sports well. In Wicked environments you achieve big wins through slow experimentation. This will feel alien to fast-moving specialists. But the wins can be huge. A home-run in baseball gets you 4 runs. A huge win in a wicked environment could be worth 1,000 runs.

Experimenters don’t fail less than anyone else but they are less hurt by it. Experimentation is uncertain and difficult, but the results can be huge. Andre Geim was messing around when he discovered the miracle material graphene. He couldn’t have predicted the outcome, but he did mess around on purpose. He calls his process Friday Night Experiments, times when he works on strange ideas to see where they lead. He purposefully introduced inefficient experimentation into his work and eventually got a huge win.

See part 3 to learn why job switching can make you happier and how generalists make great predictions. See part 2 to see why interleaving and analogies are so useful for learning. See part 1 to find out if you work in a Kind or Wicked environment and how abstraction helps you understand seemingly disconnected ideas.