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Jack of all trades, or master of one?

November 20, 2019

by Nathan Farrugia - CEO at Shireburn Software

Technology companies are not dissimilar to other knowledge economy organisations that rely on expertise and specialisations to differentiate themselves from competitors and gain an edge. Whether it’s now at Shireburn or in my previous role at Inspire, our goal is to be thought leaders in our area of impact, nurturing evidence-based approaches and testing our innovations until we find the most pragmatic outcome. In both, the goal was to acquire ‘wisdom’, which is the application of knowledge.

Our motivation within our organisations is created by the interaction of knowledge and opportunity (see diagram) and supported by the feedback we get from our team, our customers and the community. The feedback is critical for us to get a reality check on our ability to deliver our promises, driving continues improvement and sometimes, cause us to pivot. For the team to stay motivated they need to apply their knowledge, test it to failure, get feedback and so over time, build self-belief. Ask an organisation we do the same on a macro level; understanding our strategic strengths, exploring opportunities through innovation, and getting real-time feedback to either fill our sails or change tack.

When we fail as organisations, we question our self-belief and question our skills, knowledge, and mindset. What is causing our confidence to wane? What do we need to change to rebuild the confidence? When we think we have a good idea we must then seek opportunities to test the theory and use the feedback to continue learning and growing. It’s a cycle of failure and feedback supported by learning and introspection.

Human beings work in very much the same manner. We seek to acquire knowledge and then we apply it to test our hypothesis. The outcome feedback allows us to calibrate how much we need to know in any given situation, to obtain the best outcome. By garnering knowledge without application, we end up with analysis paralysis. Acting without knowledge, we just make a mess of things not knowing why. Failing forwards requires us to learn quickly and try again. Fearing failure blocks us, as we lose the confidence to try again.

The ‘problem’ with the above is that this loop requires time. Time to learn (R&D), time to test (innovation) and time to understand the feedback (analysis) slow down the learning loop, even if you ‘fail fast’. This is why it takes expertise a long while to develop, and why it has referent power in organisations. Those with the ‘survival experience’ become a rare breed. The expertise becomes a limiting factor and may slow growth, or become very costly. As a result, many now prefer a ‘generalist’ approach where everyone shares knowledge and expertise as a collective. This ensures redundancy when a person leaves and takes their experience with them. The sharing of knowledge also requires time, documentation and management. It also involves many more people and personalities that complicate matters. Therefore typically the level of expertise is generally less ‘deep’ and this has its own obvious implications on the business.

The goal may perhaps be to compromise on a balance of the above. Allow people to develop their expertise and then share it with the group. That won’t work, however; if when the organisation always calls on this expertise at every opportunity we go to the most expert. This develops their self-belief at the cost of the rest. If I have a big potential client, I send my most experienced salesperson. In case of a tricky technological issue, I call in our best expert to solve it… One person develops mastery, the rest are left behind EVEN if the knowledge is then shared.

In order to develop the team’s self-belief therefore, we need both them and leaders to take risks. Leadership should encourage everyone to test their knowledge in the field, supporting them when they falter and helping them grow through feedback and coaching. Only when we allow people to fail can we build their confidence and self-belief to feed a virtuous cycle of growth and development. We need people to get out of their comfort zone knowing we have their back. We need people to build resilience by becoming comfortable in being uncomfortable. The wider the field of opportunity, the more resilient the people and the organisation they work in.

The aim of our organisations is therefore to recruit people who are open to ‘jumping into the deep end’ and enthusiastic about continuous change. However, we are also very keen to help people develop this resilience over time, as long as they have the right attitude.

Mastery comes through experience. Experience comes from failing and trying again. Are you brave enough to try?

Find out more about the careers at Shireburn Software.



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