Being good at what you do

3 August 2007

The idea that people should work out what they are good at and like doing, and then go an try to make a living doing it is hardly new or revolutionary.  I have come across two prescriptions recently.  One is simple and in one sense quite traditional.  It comes from Joel Spolsky who runs a software business:

In principle, it’s simple. You’re looking for people who are

  1. Smart, and
  2. Get things done

and who has now turned that thought into a book.

The second authority is none other than Scott Adams, who also has a two rule strategy:

If you want an average successful life, it doesn’t take much
planning. Just stay out of trouble, go to school, and apply for obs
you might like. But if you want something extraordinary, you have two

1. Become the best at one specific thing.

2. Become very good (top 25%) at two or more things.

His argument is that for most people the first strategy is impossible to achieve – most of us are never destined to be the supreme embodiment of any one skill.  But he suggests the second strategy is viable for lots of people, and that the intersection of the two or more things will be sufficiently unusual to create powerful opportunities.  He claims to be the embodiment of his own prescription:

The second strategy is fairly easy. Everyone has at least a few areas
in which they could be in the top 25% with some effort. In my case, I
can draw better than most people, but I’m hardly an artist. And I’m not
any funnier than the average standup comedian who never makes it big,
but I’m funnier than most people. The magic is that few people can draw
well and write jokes. It’s the combination of the two that makes what I
do so rare. And when you add in my business background, suddenly I had
a topic that few cartoonists could hope to understand without living it.

So far so good.  But what about organisations?

In the days when I used to read strategy textbooks, I remember plenty about core competences, unique selling propositions and sources of competitive advantage, but I remember nothing about how organisational success might stem from the intersection of capabilities, or conversely that identifying and focusing on such an intersection might be a route to strategic success.   So the justification for the existence of, say, a public sector delivery organisation wouldn’t be just policy (arguably think tanks and others can be more creative, more fleet of foot and better connected), or just operational delivery (it scarcely needs argument that for at least some forms of delivery specialised expertise is better found elsewhere), or just anything else – but it could be that doing all of them makes the resulting whole better than the alternative because of the power of the intersection.

That has some interesting implications for how questions such as outsourcing are approached.  Muttering "synergies" can’t be allowed to be a get out of jail free card, but equally the thought that bits can be lopped off based solely on the internal efficiency of the bit being lopped is not adequate either.

The Dilbert Blog, by the way, is worth looking at – and not a cartoon to be seen.