Understanding Elephants in an Era of Specialization

ElephantMany of us know the story that originated from the Indian sub-continent about a group of blind men who happen upon an elephant, and while holding different parts of it begin to argue about what the elephant most resembled.  The men holding the ears said the elephant was like a fan.  The man holding the trunk described it as a serpent.  The men touching the sides of the elephant described it as a wall, and so forth.

There was a time when most people knew a high percentage of the world around them.  The Joad family in The Grapes of Wrath were of a generation where men could fix cars when they broke down and keep on going.  By contrast, most of us cannot fix our own cars, or figure out why our computers are running slow, and on and on.

Previous eras were a mile wide and an inch deep.  There was little specialization and survival depended upon breadth of knowledge.

We now live in an era where most of us are an inch wide and a mile deep.  Due to the incredible advances in technology and innovation, we cannot be like Aristotle, allegedly the last human who knew everything there was to be known in his own time.

What’s the point?

  • Our lives and jobs today tend to force us towards more specialization.  If this applies to you, I have good news and bad news.  Good news: the more you specialize in important skills that others value, the more successful you may become.  Bad news: you might be boring.
  • Our respective areas of specialization insure that, like the blind men, we cannot get a clear picture of large concepts without collaborating with others.  It’s tough for people who are an inch wide to accomplish a great goal without having a clear picture of the task at hand.  This is why collaboration is more critical today than ever (good news: it’s also easier to do today than ever).

Want to not be boring?  Read books and foster interests outside your area of specialty.  In addition to being (potentially) more interesting to others, you may gain new perspectives on vexing problems at work and in the world around you.

Want to accomplish a BHAG?  If you look only through your eyes, you may describe the great challenge in front of you as a rope and not realize you only have an elephant by the tail.


Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are not constructive, excessively snarky, or off-topic.

  • Guest

    You – Mr. Diamond, will never be boring… Well done!

  • disqus_rADCncoFRt

    Interesting perspective Mike. Agree that collaboration has never been more crucial than now; however, many believe today that knowledge is power and as such, are resistant to true and deep collaboration – to the sharing of their knowledge. Those organizations that foster knowledge-sharing differentiate themselves. Unfortunately, the praeto rule applies and it is only 20% of the members of most organizations who truly collaborate.