In his recent book, Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, David Epstein makes the argument that combining knowledge and experience from multiple fields is the optimal path to success. He relies heavily on the worlds of sports, science, corporate culture, and higher education to make his compelling point.
He notes that the case he’s making is not universal, and that there are particular fields and areas of interest for which one cannot categorically state that generalists succeed better than specialists.
So, what about the world of marketing? And, perhaps more importantly, what will be most likely to succeed in a post-COVID world?
According to Epstein’s research, specialists flourish in “kind” learning environments, where patterns recur and feedback is quick and accurate. Think golf, chess, classical-music performance, firefighting, anesthesiology.
By contrast, generalists flourish in “wicked” learning environments, where patterns are harder to discern and feedback is delayed and/or inaccurate—like tennis, jazz, emergency medicine, technological innovation. These are “VUCA” environments, a concept introduced by the U.S. Army War College in 1987 to describe more volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous situations.
Consumer perceptions, social behaviors, category disruption, new technologies, market demand, product innovation, financial forecasting—the number of VUCA factors that comprise the world of marketing have always made our industry more “wicked” than “kind.” It’s why marketing has always been just as much art as science, just as much intuition as reasoning.
And given the volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity brought on by COVID-19, can you imagine a more “wicked” environment than the world of marketing going forward?
We can’t, either. That’s why range will be even more favorable than before, and we’ve identified the five qualities of generalists that we believe will be of most benefit to marketing teams and leaders through 2020 and beyond:
It almost goes without saying that the more varied experiences you have and the more people you meet, the more able you are to understand other human beings—not only what they may be thinking, but also what they may be feeling. The ability to appreciate another’s perspective has always been at the heart of creating communications and customer experiences. During and after this crisis, empathy will be needed more than ever.
Insights are the springboard for ideas, igniting the creative process through a new way to look at a problem. That’s why many of the best brand strategists come from varied backgrounds; differing perspectives produce new angles. As we veer into an uncertain “next normal” following COVID-19, what people want and need (and the motivations behind those wants and needs) will be tougher to understand—which means marketers who are particularly skilled at generating insights (the why behind what people say and do) will become increasingly valuable.
Since the turn of the century, there’s been a litany of research and literature on creativity. And much of it points out that most ideas now, if not all ideas entirely, are not completely new at all. Rather, ideas are new combinations of pre-existing ideas. And evidence has shown that this creative ideation process is particularly likely to occur when an existing idea (or set of ideas) migrates from one field to another. So the more fields and ideas a team is exposed to, the more fruitful the environment is for creativity. Without a doubt, we’re going to need as many creative ideas as possible to navigate a new reality.
COVID-19 will teach us many lessons, perhaps none as incisive as the value of adapting quickly. In many ways, this pandemic has exposed a rigidity across industries, markets, institutions, and societies that has led to tragic consequences in some cases. Marketers without the ability to pivot will lose share of mind and share of wallet to those who can adapt and optimize rapidly. And having a range of knowledge and experiences will help marketing organizations more capably recognize possibilities, define opportunities, and determine a path forward.
The significant role of grit in success has gotten a lot of attention over the past few years. Whatever you call it—grit, tenacity, resilience, determination—it might arguably be our most indispensable quality moving forward. Grit requires vulnerability, allows for disappointment, embraces failure, and prioritizes progress over perfection. It’s about overcoming adversity, and those with experience in multiple disciplines have had to show resolve across a wider set of adversities. In the face of various obstacles, they’re able to make connections and develop solutions that their more specialized peers can’t see.
"And that is what a rapidly changing, wicked world demands—conceptual reasoning skill that can connect new ideas and work across contexts." ~ David Epstein
Breadth is not the enemy of depth. On the contrary, breadth allows us to explore problems more deeply by uncovering new ways of looking at them.
Breadth, in turn, breeds empathy, insight, creativity, flexibility, and grit. Following this pandemic, marketers will need to employ these qualities more than ever to navigate a more volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous world.