• Toby Sinclair

Book Summary: Range - Why Generalists Triumph by David Epstein | The 3 Big Ideas

Updated: Dec 14, 2020


3 Big Ideas:


In complex, wicked environments:

  1. Over specialisation can be harmful

  2. Diverse teams of generalists trump highly specialised teams

  3. People and groups who thrive have a set of meta-skills such as systems thinking, sense-making and pattern matching


2 Most Tweetable Quotes:


“Over specialisation can lead to collective tragedy even when every individual separately takes the most reasonable course of action.”

“In wicked domains, the rules of the game are often unclear or incomplete. There may or may not be repetitive patterns and they may not be obvious. Feedback is often delayed or inaccurate.”

Toby's Top Takeaways


What does your organisation value most; specialists or generalists?


In efforts to become "more agile", many organisations are now looking to build cross-functional "Feature Teams". Often there can be push back to building these cross-functional teams, especially from specialists who have built their career about being an expert.


This book gives excellent examples to help you demonstrate to colleagues why teams of generalists trump teams of specialists. The examples of Roger Federer and Global Financial crash are very relatable.


I also really liked how David explains the skills of these generalists in complex environments such as systems thinking, sense-making and pattern matching.


This is a must-read for anyone who is exploring how to succeed in complex environments. In addition to this book I'd also recommend the following articles on Complexity:

Big idea 1 – Over specialisation can be harmful in complex environments

  1. Over specialisation is effective in “kind environments” where the rules are known and there is a clear outcome.

  2. In wicked domains, the rules of the game are often unclear or incomplete. There may or may not be repetitive patterns and they may not be obvious. Feedback is often delayed or inaccurate.

  3. In a wicked world, relying upon experience from a single domain is not only limiting, but it can also be disastrous.

  4. It can lead to collective tragedy even when every individual separately takes the most reasonable course of action.

  5. As each person amasses more information for his own view, they become more dogmatic, and they become blind to inadequacies in their thinking.

  6. Specialists find it harder to “unlearn. They are more likely to stick to familiar tools and are blind if they are ineffective. They view the world through a narrow lens.

  7. A metaphor of over specialisation in action: Everyone is digging deeper into their own trench and rarely standing up to look in the next trench over, even though the solution to their problem happens to reside there

Example:

Specialisation played a critical role in the 2008 global financial crisis. “Insurance regulators regulated insurance, bank regulators regulated banks, securities regulators regulated securities, and consumer regulators regulated consumers, but the provision of credit goes across all those markets. So we specialised products, we specialised regulation, and the question is, ‘Who looks across those markets?’ The specialised approach to regulation missed systemic issues.

Big Idea 2 – Diverse, “generalist” teams trump highly specialised teams in complex environments

  1. Whether or not experience inevitably leads to expertise, depends entirely on the domain in question. The narrow experience made for better chess and poker players (Kind domains), but not for better predictors of financial or political trends, or of how employees or patients would perform (wicked/complex domains)

  2. The challenge we all face is how to maintain the benefits of breadth, diverse experience, interdisciplinary thinking, and delayed concentration in a world that increasingly incentives, even demands, specialisation

  3. Teams with diverse professional backgrounds are the ones where more and more varied perspectives are offered, and where breakthroughs are more reliably produced in uncertain situations.

Example: Rodger Federer (late specialiser) vs Tiger Woods (early specialiser)


While it is undoubtedly true that there are areas that require individuals with Tiger’s precocity and clarity of purpose, as complexity increases—where each individual only sees a small part of the whole—we also need more Rogers: people who start broad and embrace diverse experiences and perspectives while they progress. People with range.

Big Idea 3 – The 10 skills are critical to succeed in complex environments


Prior experience is less important than having these core thinking skills:

  1. High tolerance for ambiguity

  2. Systems thinking

  3. Knowledge from many domains

  4. Ability to repurpose what is already available and connect disparate pieces of information in new ways

  5. Synthesise information from many different sources

  6. Ability to decipher patterns and extract rules

  7. Read more (and more broadly) and have a wider range of outside interests

  8. Communicate with various individuals with expertise outside of their own domain.

  9. Attack problems with insightful questions

  10. Use Sensemaking, not decision making

©2020 by Toby Sinclair.

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