Drowning in data: The case for the business generalist

Expertise and algorithms are overrated. Try using your brain, says this Harvard academic.

by Vikram Mansharamani
Last Updated: 29 Jul 2020

Approximately 2,700 years ago, the Greek poet Archilochus wrote that “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” Isaiah Berlin took up the idea in his 1953 essay The Hedgehog and the Fox, contrasting hedgehogs who “relate everything to a single central vision” with foxes who “pursue many ends connected . . . if at all, only in some de facto way.”

It’s really a story of specialists with a single focus versus generalists who pursue many ends. In the decades since Berlin’s essay was published, hedgehogs have come to dominate academia, medicine, finance, law and many other professional domains. Specialists with deep expertise have ruled the roost, climbing to ever higher positions. To advance in one’s career, it has been efficient to specialise. And all of us have come to respect the highly paid expert specialist. But as said by philosophising baseball catcher and manager Yogi Berra, “the future ain’t what it used to be.”

Our world is increasingly interconnected; seemingly unrelated developments now rapidly and profoundly affect each other. Meddling with interest rates can rapidly affect house prices that drive local school funding, which in turn can impact inequality not only of income and wealth but also of opportunity. Or perhaps a local renewable fuel standard impacts global agricultural prices, generating social unrest in food-vulnerable Africa.

Uncertainty and fuzziness plague our existence, which demands daily decisions on everything from the painfully simple to the grossly complex. And in a world in which technology is progressing at breakneck speed, the advantages of a narrow focus and formulaic solutions are rapidly waning.

Time and time again, experts and specialists have failed to understand complex, interconnected phenomena. History is littered with reputation- destroying predictions of misapplied expertise.

Recall Irving Fisher’s 1929 statement that the stock market had achieved a “permanently high plateau,” a level that for subsequent decades looked more like a summit. Or what about Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich, who noted in The Population Bomb that “the battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s and 1980s, hundreds of millions of people will starve to death.” Lastly, consider Gordon Chang’s The Coming Collapse of China, a book that persuasively argued that the Middle Kingdom was destined to fall apart. The book was published in 2001; in the decade that followed, China boomed. There are many more such examples of a narrow focus leading experts to miss developments taking place outside of their domain.

Professor Fisher’s economic logic failed to fully grasp how policy might exacerbate market conditions. Professor Ehrlich underappreciated the impact of the green revolution that dramatically increased agricultural productivity. And Chang didn’t fully incorporate the impact of China’s urbanisation, modernisation and globalisation efforts that helped the country lift millions from poverty.

None of this is intended to suggest that experts are not valuable. They are. Nor is it intended to suggest that these predictions weren’t useful. In provoking thought, they played a valuable role. In certain scientific domains, there are enormous returns to specialisation and focus. For anyone needing brain surgery, seeking an experienced expert is preferable to a general surgeon. But today’s interconnected problems demand integrated thinking. And context matters, something that is structurally outside of the focus of those with deep expertise. What we need is contextualised expertise that is complemented with broad perspective.

Not doing so often results in intellectual acrobatics to justify one’s perspective in the face of conflicting data. Think about former Federal Reserve chair Alan Greenspan’s public admission of finding “a flaw” in his worldview. Academics and serious economists were dogmatically dedicated to the efficient market hypothesis - contributing to the inflation of an unprecedented credit bubble between 2001 and 2007. Yet the global financial crisis demonstrated that while markets may be efficient most of the time, they can and do become massively inefficient as well.

There is also robust research suggesting that generalists are better at navigating uncertainty. Philip Tetlock, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, has found experts are less accurate predictors than non-experts in their areas of expertise. His conclusion is that when seeking accuracy of predictions, it is actually better to turn to those resembling “Berlin’s prototypical fox, those who know many little things, draw from an eclectic array of traditions and accept ambiguity and contradictions.”

Ideological reliance on a single perspective appears detrimental to one’s ability to successfully navigate the vague situations that are more prevalent today than ever before. The future has always been uncertain, but our ability to navigate it has been impaired by an increasingly narrow focus. The closer you are to the material, the more likely you are to believe it. In psychology jargon, you anchor on your own beliefs and insufficiently adjust from them. In more straightforward language, a man with a hammer is more likely to see nails. Expertise means being less likely to see ways in which your perspective may warrant adjustment. In uncertain domains, I believe breadth of perspective may trump depth of knowledge.

Life in the twenty-first century is not about eliminating our dependence on those with deep and narrow expertise. That’s simply unrealistic. But we can balance that depth with a generalist’s breadth of perspective that understands the limitations of expert guidance.

That means using experts strategically. They may have a narrow focus, but we can combine their guidance with our broad perspective. What may make sense from their perspective may not be best for our ultimate objectives.

We must also remain in constant and conscious charge of integrating the views of experts and technologies. Each view is by nature incomplete. Only we can see the complete picture. The task of integration is ours alone. As you form your own mosaic, using tiles from experts, always remember that each piece is merely part of the whole story. We must learn to keep experts on tap and not on top. We need to think for ourselves.

Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Review Press. Excerpted from Think for Yourself: Restoring Common Sense in an Age of Experts and Artificial Intelligence. Copyright 2020 Vikram Mansharamani. All rights reserved.

Image credit: Chris Jackson/WPA Pool via Getty Images


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