How to be both a specialist and generalist
Domain expertise is critical to success, but seeing the big picture is fundamental
The amount of knowledge required to navigate the world is ever expanding
Our ability to truly comprehend a challenge is limited to our domain expertise
Being an expert in one area does not translate into other domains; you need help
New tools and resources are providing assistance to help us see more possibilities
Synthesizing diverse viewpoints and a strong vision help leaders shape the future
Which is better, the fox or the hedgehog?
In reflecting on this year, I continue to seek a balance between narrowly targeting my focus to serve a specific audience and keeping my aperture as wide as possible to see the bigger picture and share that view with others. As you can see from a picture of my bookshelf above, I have always had a variety of interests. (I’ll admit this is a small fraction of the books I own; my Kindle allows me to carry thousands more titles in digital form.) This reminds me of the old proverb, later popularized by Isaiah Berlin, about the hedgehog and the fox: “a fox knows many things, but a hedgehog knows one big thing.”
In his classic book Good to Great, author Jim Collins introduces The Hedgehog Concept, where he argues that firms must answer three questions to make the leap as an organization:
What are we deeply passionate about?
What can we be the best in the world at?
What will best drive our economic or resource engine?
By contrast, Nate Silver is the author of The Signal and the Noise and founder of the FiveThirtyEight website devoted to data journalism. Silver outlines his core philosophy in an essay titled What The Fox Knows and has embraced Fivey Fox as his company’s mascot (complete with its own subculture).
So which is a better path to pursue personally and professionally: should you seek to be a fox or a hedgehog? In reality, we all have some of both characters within us. Rather than choosing to model yourself after one or the other, it is more important to identify the balance between the two that you wish to strike - and recognize your limits on both ends of the spectrum. A hedgehog is likely to intimately know key details that are the critical difference between failure and success while subject to tunnel vision. By contrast, the fox is expected to recognize what direction an organization needs to move in but fails to appreciate the importance of buy-in from technical experts.
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Why does Forestview exist, and who is it for?
It’s been exciting to start my own small company, Forestview Insights, in 2022 after 25 years of working in large corporations and governmental institutions. As any entrepreneur knows, you quickly realize that you’ve traded one set of problems for an entirely different set of challenges, and I’ll share more about my journey in future posts. My main focus for the business and this newsletter has remained the same: to provide you with concise yet thoughtful content that sparks your own ideas and spurs conversations with colleagues, associates, and others in your network.
The top question I have received during the year is a basic one. Who is Forestview for? I have wrestled with the answer, and my views on this continue to evolve. As a former people leader responsible for innovative projects, my teams and I needed to continually educate ourselves on the latest industry trends, technologies, and competitive market strategies. To do so, we relied upon each other first and foremost: having an open and honest dialogue among professionals with different domain expertise and diverse viewpoints was critical for our success. Additionally, we relied on industry publications, consultants, social media, and third-party vendors. Unfortunately, many of these sources came at a substantial cost or were biased toward embracing a specific solution set (or both!).
My goal in launching Forestview is to provide you with meaningful insights at little to no cost compared with alternatives and help you and your organization make smarter decisions. In short, my intended audience for Forestview is anyone who seeks to lead change and help shape the future of their organization. This can be at the top level - board and C-suite - down to the lowest position within your firm. Your formal role within your organization is less relevant than your purpose. Are you someone who thinks beyond their specific role and domain expertise to focus on the big picture? Do you seek to connect with others to gain knowledge and perspective that lead to better individual and collective decision-making? Are you curious about current trends that are shaping our future without being sold a specific solution set? If so, then Forestview is for you.
Want to become smarter? Start a conversation!
As loyal readers know, I love to read books and attend industry conferences and events to stay on top of meaningful trends in our rapidly changing world. The task is fun but never-ending: there is always more to learn. Actual knowledge comes from not just absorbing new information but synthesizing it. I’ve had the fortune to see this dynamic firsthand. As the author of The End Of Insurance As We Know It, readers have repeatedly told me how many insights they have gained from reading my book. I credit this less to any brilliant ideas I shared and more to the synthesis I provided across how emerging technologies are changing the insurance industry. Bringing together a set of trends and developments into a coherent narrative unlocked new insights for my audience over and above each individual piece of information they had previously consumed—context matters.
The best way to make sense of trends and data is to talk to others. Do they see the same thing? Do they share the same interpretation? Do they agree on the implications for your organization? Tools such as artificial intelligence can significantly aid humans in identifying patterns in a data-filled world, but people are needed to find meaning. From the hedgehog perspective of each person’s domain expertise, a fox can start creating a mosaic that outlines the big picture. Both foxes and hedgehogs can put together a strategic vision and actionable plan that each department or area can execute. Neither a fox nor a hedgehog alone is perfect for leading change within an organization: both roles are required to maximize your chances of success in shaping the future.