Strategy’s Case Against Specialization


The poet William DeWitt Snodgrass died last year, an event little remarked on in the strategy community. This is probably because in fifty years of writing and teaching, Snodgrass evinced absolutely no interest in business, or none that I can detect. No, his province was the human soul, particularly the tortured soul. He won the Pulitzer Prize in 1960 for his first book, Heart’s Needle, a collection recounting the tugs, pulls, and devastation of finding himself estranged, through divorce, from his young daughter.

The last line of Snodgrass’s best-known poem does, however, contain a reminder useful for strategists.

In the seasonally appropriate “April Inventory,” the poet trolls through a list of all he hasn’t done in the preceding year (anything that would burnish his scholarly credentials or win academic preferment). And what he has done — ease an old man’s dying, teach a girl a song of Mahler’s. (It’s a terrific poem, at once elegiac, mysterious, and in spots hilarious.)

At the end, the poet concludes

There is a loveliness exists
Preserves us, not for specialists.

The last three words came back to me when I read a response from Carla Zilka to an interview Sarah Cliffe did with me for Having hired and fired the big strategy houses when she worked for GE, Zilka writes, she now sees the benefit of more specialized consultants. (Indeed, her website indicates that she has founded just such an outfit.)

What Zilka says comports with what I’m hearing from other quarters. Private-equity firms have been enthusiastic clients for the likes of Bain & Co. and McKinsey, and they still use these more traditional advisors. But, as one of them told me, “Now we’re really figuring out how to identify the precisely specialized consulting firm for help with a particular issue.”

Specialization is in the air, as it has been for twenty years. You see it in the academy. When Michael Porter expresses the worry that rising faculty members at Harvard Business School have become more focused on their research than on practice, he’s talking — in part — about specialization. Bright twentysomethings I know who’ve gone into law, finance, and other worldly fields report feeling pressure to specialize ever earlier in their careers.

Even the consulting outfits who still proudly claim the title “strategy firm” glommed onto the trend years ago. Beginning in the 1980s, the Boston Consulting Group and McKinsey shifted much of their effort into industry practices (banking, say, or energy) or into specialties built around a particular subject (customer behavior, or what hath the Internet wrought).

All this seems inevitable, ineluctable, as unstoppable as the fragmentation of every market you know into smaller segments. But it also leaves me missing some of the unifying, not-for-specialists aspects of strategy at its best.

At least as practiced inside companies, the discipline of strategy always got itself into the most trouble when it was seen as the hermetic wisdom of a few wonky specialists, corporate planners, and consultants. Much of the largely fruitless discussion about formulation versus implementation, still dogging the subject today, sprung from biting that original, poisoned apple.

The smartest of the ancient lords understood that strategy could provide both a unified world-view for the corporation and a common vocabulary for its people to use in discussing what they wanted their enterprise to be and do. As you have by now tired of hearing me repeat, strategy provided the first framework by which companies could integrate what they understood about their costs, customers, and competitors. Do you see anything like that on offer from the experts on pricing, say, or performance improvement?

Companies all have strategies in place now, or say they do. So who needs another device for putting it all together? Well, maybe some of the powerhouses on Wall Street, who seemed to have missed the fact that they were putting a lot of golden eggs in just a few baskets (credit default swaps, sub-prime mortgages). Or rather, counting on just a few, increasingly overstuffed hens to keep delivering those eggs.

Three modest steps to combat the tunnel vision that can result from having a passel of specialists each digging his or her own rabbit hole on the corporate commons:

Look for the “connection of the week.” If you are the general manager of a unit, or, even more trying, the chief executive, it is your responsibility to constantly see the big picture. In these competitive times, you have no time for this non-urgent exercise. Walks on the weekend and time at the gym may afford some chance for integrative deliberation, but even there you have demands on you (that pesky personal trainer). At the least, tax yourself each week with thinking up one way, or maybe two, in which seemingly unconnected aspects of your operation just might be connected.

Have a council, a committee, maybe just a standing meeting that brings together different specialties to take action on an issue of collective concern. And not something unimportant, like “Where are we going to hold the company picnic?” Some problem that’s keeping you, and possibly them, up at night.

Reflect on your organization’s history, and the possible lessons it contains. Time has a way of suggesting links, forces at work, dynamics that may not have been apparent to the poor souls caught up in the maelstrom of the moment. I know what you’re thinking: it’s so different today; we can’t do things like we used to; and besides, we packaged out all the old timers. Still, your original corporate DNA probably continues to be at work somewhere in there, shaping your response to the fresh hell that confronts you. Try to lift the strands into consciousness, and to put to use any wisdom you find there. It may be preservative, and not for specialists.

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