Cross-fertilisation and applying eclectic experience are the keys to success

I recently promised I would report back to you on a book I was looking forward to reading on holiday.

The tome was called Range: How Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World by a guy called David Epstein.

It is a superb piece of work and one I can highly recommend.

Its central tenet is that early specialism (say, in the style of a Tiger Woods learning to play golf practically from birth) is all very well, but the best results almost always come when cross-fertilisation occurs across different disciplines and eclectic experience.

When people from adjacent professions join forces to try to solve problems they tend to be more creative and have a better chance of succeeding. Teams of similarly schooled people are easily stuck and often go down blind alleys together.

When they are joined by folks with broader experiences they are far more likely to hit upon effective new solutions.

It’s often as simple as applying a technique that has worked well somewhere else to a new discipline.

In the book Epstein recounts the lives of many extraordinarily creative people who have switched their way to great discoveries and outstanding career success.

One of their most common traits is the ability to drop projects or whole career paths that aren’t working and try something else completely different until they find something that really suits them.

When they finally do settle into something in which they might specialise, their accumulated and varied experience is often what gives these people a massive competitive edge in their chosen career. It’s as if they have lateral, creative thinking hard-wired into them.

The book makes a very strong case that the global trend to early specialism is holding back innovation. Epstein cites a particularly counter-intuitive study that showed that when the most prestigious US cardiology specialists were all absent attending their annual convention, reported death rates from heart attack actually fell instead of rising!

It turns out that all their training wasn’t actually making them better cardiologists – rather they were just becoming extraordinarily well practised at applying the same well-rehearsed solutions to all the problems they were confronted with, regardless of the facts.

People specialise early because it gives them a head start.

Everything about the structure of education and the world of work is stacked up that way. The sooner we get good at something the sooner we can be better respected, paid and funded. But the sooner that happens the harder it is to subsequently change course.

The sheer amount of time and money invested in becoming specialised creates a heavy barrier to the very switching that Epstein argues is what we should be encouraging more of.

So, armed with this insight, how might we change corporate culture to give ourselves an edge?

I think Epstein would say it would be a good idea to encourage regular career development and experimentation, as well as a culture of curiosity for curiosity’s sake, even if the potential benefits are not immediately apparent.

We need to re-learn how to learn. Very often extraordinarily powerful applications for old ideas pop up in completely unrelated fields and only varied experience can unlock the true value of our knowledge.

Epstein shows conclusively that command and control-style, siloed business cultures really don’t work at producing innovation anymore, whereas the promotion of genuine dialogue across all strata of an organisation really does.

All these things are hard to do in practice, not least because specialism is so ingrained a culture.

But at least in insurance we have a head start.

We often bemoan the fact that a career in insurance is not a first choice for anybody and that all the brightest minds get attracted into investment banking or other fields.

People end up drifting into insurance by accident.

But instead of lamenting we should celebrate and encourage this.

People find insurance by accident, often after doing one or two other things first. But when they do find it they tend to like it and they tend to stay. They stay because they are well-rounded pragmatic people working in a multidisciplinary industry that also sits horizontally across multiple industry verticals and ultimately all of society.

This makes for a highly varied, challenging and fun environment. The pay is pretty good too, but that is probably only a secondary factor for retention. People stay because insurance solves massive problems in myriad ways that are highly satisfying to be a part of.

Because risk is always evolving this is also a business where we are still learning as we go along. Experience changes radically and rapidly and we have to react.

We are still innovating, although just like so many other industries we are now doing so at a worryingly slower pace than before.

Having read Epstein, to change this state of affairs what we almost certainly need to do is encourage switching, secondment and rotation between our own departments, as well as with all our customers and suppliers and probably further afield.

We also need permanent R&D spend, some of which we will just have to accept that we simply won't know what purpose it might serve at the outset.That is the point - the best research needs to be done to satisfy a burning curiosity - the valuable application has to be found afterward the understanding has been developed.

But most importantly we need to be able to see and hear what is going on across all of our business or we will ignore the inherent value we are harbouring within. This is much harder to do in practice than it sounds in theory.

But if we don’t change we are going to be vulnerable and may allow all our precious learning to be applied by someone else who is paying closer attention from outside our sector.

Have a read and see what you think, but I think Epstein is really onto something.

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