The Specialist’s Dilemma

beginners mind

Innovation has many enemies, but the one you can count on to rear its ugly head all the time is expertise. You see, true innovation is something new, surprising and radically useful; it’s an order of magnitude better than what currently exists. Expertise driven innovation results in incremental improvements, which is good for stability; but it hinders progress when it comes to making leaps.

This is a fact in all domains, not just business, because humans have a built-in bias for the status quo so any idea that threatens it will be ignored. If it isn’t broke don’t fix it, right? And many things are taken for granted, and how something could be done in a better way is rarely contemplated. A specialist who’s become great at what they do has less motivation to experiment and explore, yet it’s this attitude and openness to dealing with ambiguity that drives innovation.

As innovators we have to be aware that our society is driven by specialists and rewards specialization; but ironically elevates innovators to God status only after a powerful idea has been adopted.

Success breeds failure

MMA analyst Robin Black, who I featured recently on a post about why disruption never comes from within, just dropped his 3rd Mayweather Jr. vs Conor McGregor fight analysis where he elaborates further on how Floyd Mayweather Jr., a decorated boxer and specialist, might be slayed by an outsider; Conor McGregor.

It’s a long analysis, but one key point he mentions is the specialist’s dilemma:

As I’ve stated before most innovation is not disruptive, something new and surprising; it’s incremental. But, incremental improvements have an expiration date. And that’s the challenge business leaders face, because to make a leap you have to shift your perspective from maintaining your core business through constant improvements to creating exponential value through radical concepts that depart from the status quo.

As people and organizations become successful, they double down on maintaining and protecting what got them to where they are by focusing on the short-term. In doing so, they become more reactive and vulnerable to surprises.

This is the specialist’s dilemma. From Future Blind:

The stronger your competitive position, the more vulnerable you are to eventually being disrupted and replaced.

As stated above, disruption happens in all domains and it’s always because of an outsider; rarely an insider. An outsider has great power because he’s not tied down by the weight of precedent and old ideas. This means they won’t play the same game, but a different and better one that only they can win. More importantly, outsiders have nothing to lose and everything to gain; incumbents lose that edge and attitude the more successful they become.

Avoiding the Specialist’s Dilemma

To avoid the specialist’s dilemma you have to remember two key principles:

  1. Success breeds failure because what got you here won’t get you there.
  2. As a specialist what you know limits what you can imagine.

The key to combating the Specialist’s Dilemma is to always adopt a beginner’s mind to approach everything with an open mind and never let our minds settle. Remember, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.”  

Bottom line: Those who approach everything with a beginner’s mind avoid the specialist’s dilemma and drive disruption and outpace those who don’t.