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  • Writer's pictureBrett Dossey and Jake Foer

The Importance of Range for Program Management

Updated: Nov 3, 2022


 

Executive Summary


While the 10,000-hour rule is a great concept that has captured the attention of corporate America, “stories of innovation and self-discovery can look like orderly journeys from A to B” (Epstein 287). The reality is that we live in a very ‘wicked’ world where range plays a major factor. While we cling to stories of superstars who have been training their whole lives in one area (Tiger Woods, Serena Williams, etc.), that “path minimizes the role of detours, breadth, and experimentation” (Epstein 287). We forget about the mostly trivial 1,000 patents of Thomas Edison and just look at the light bulb. We forget that Roger Federer didn’t start focusing on tennis until his teenage years or, for any fellow Texans out there, the great Dirk Nowitzki was more of a handball player until he decided to pick up a basketball later in life. Just like these greats showed quite a bit of range to become masters in their respective fields, we believe that in the wicked world of business, ‘rangey’ program managers are absolutely critical to deliver the most complex, strategic initiatives for our clients. Read on to discover how we came to this conclusion and how Torq is implementing these practices with our clients every day.


 

Introduction


Ever since Malcom Gladwell popularized (from K. Anders Ericsson) the “10,000-hours rule” in his book, “Outliers”, the professional world has become increasingly obsessed with specialization. While Gladwell makes a very compelling case that, with enough deliberate practice (and the right amount of natural talent), mastery is within our reach, I have always struggled with the concept. It makes sense intuitively in many different fields like sports, chess, even software development, but what do you deliberately practice to become a CEO? What does 10,000 hours of program management look like? There are plenty of people who have been in key positions in large enterprises for many years who are not/would not be effective CEOs. People have been doing program management for decades, but that doesn’t seem to make them a master. So how does one become great in the world of program management? And as a startup consulting firm, how can Torq People Solutions hire and develop great program managers to deliver for our clients? As I continued my struggle to find out how the 10,000-hours rule could apply in the field of Program Management, I came across David Epstein’s book, “Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World”. In this book, Epstein provides an alternate path to mastery that finally put to words what I have been thinking for years. Here are a few key takeaways from his book that show that “Range” is just as critical, if not more, for aspiring program managers than specialization.


 

Program Management is Wicked Hard


One of the key issues with the 10,000-hours rule that Epstein contends in his book is that this only applies in certain conditions. He differentiates between two types of environments: Kind and Wicked. “In what Robin Hogarth deemed “kind” learning environments, ‘Patterns repeat over and over, and feedback is extremely accurate and usually very rapid. In golf or chess, a ball or piece is moved according to rules and within defined boundaries, a consequence is quickly apparent, and similar challenges occur repeatedly. Drive a golf ball, and it either goes too far or not far enough; it slices, hooks, or flies straight. The player observes what happened, attempts to correct the error, tries again, and repeats for years. That is the very definition of deliberate practice, the type identified with both the 10,000-hours rule and the rush to early specialization in technical training. The learning environment is kind because a learner improves simply by engaging in the activity and trying to do better.’ On the contrary, we have wicked domains. 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, and feedback is often delayed, inaccurate, or both.” The world tends to be a wicked place. It is not as simple as golf or even tennis. As psychologist Robin Hogarth puts it ‘Much of the world is ‘Martian tennis.’ You can see the players on a court with balls and rackets, but nobody has shared the rules. It is up to you to derive them, and they are subject to change without notice.” (Epstein 21) Program Management seems a lot like “Martian Tennis” so I would definitely put it in the ‘wicked’ category. Typically, you are dealing with complicated, cross-functional initiatives that are critical for the company performance, future competitive landscape, or sometimes even the outright survival of an enterprise. During these projects, you are often dealing with dozens of different stakeholders with their own agendas, they can span anywhere from a few months to a couple years, and usually have major budgets to get them done. No pressure! You have to continually adjust to executive expectations while focusing on working across the various stakeholders to somehow execute to achieve the common goal.

In one of the most recent programs that Torq has managed, we were tasked with driving an initiative to evolve to a more customer-focused enterprise by merging disparate, regional customer service centers into new “experience centers.” Every employee at one of these customer service centers suddenly needed to move to the new experience centers. Navigating this change was not only a major challenge from a program management standpoint (organizing and coordinating an exceptionally large number of individuals that were either moving locations or leaving the company), but it was also a major change management challenge that had to be handled delicately. While these challenges have been done numerous times before, they are never quite the same because you are dealing with people’s lives. Their jobs, their spouses, their kids would all be impacted by this project. In addition to the already daunting prospect of moving existing, or hiring new, employees for the new experience centers, our program team also had to coordinate all system migration/updates, process overhauls, and onboarding/training new vendors to take on certain responsibilities. If that wasn’t enough, the client also wanted to completely change the structure of the organization to be functionally focused, rather than the geographic focus that was in place with the regional service centers. While this is a massive program with a ridiculous amount of change, many people with extensive experience in the program management world have probably come across an enterprise initiative of similar scale and complexity. In this type of wicked environment, program management clearly is an area where “range” is critical.


 

Take a Deep Breadth


Now that we’ve established that program management is a wicked environment, how can program management professionals look beyond the “10,000-hours rule” and leverage “range” to become great at what they do? As you can probably guess, Epstein suggests that “range” is all about your breadth of experience. Epstein states that “…breadth of training predicts breadth of transfer. That is, the more contexts in which something is learned, the more the learner creates abstract models, and the less they rely on any particular example. Learners become better at applying their knowledge to a situation they’ve never seen before, which is the essence of creativity” (Epstein 77) He contends that when someone has a vast array of experiences and knowledge in seemingly disparate fields, they are able to pull analogies and examples from those domains to connect the dots in ways that a specialist cannot. Specialists are so experienced at being a hammer, that every problem starts to look like a nail. “For example, to this day, interventional cardiologists who specialize in treating pain by inserting stents continue to use this practice to treat non-life-threatening, stable heart disease. This is done even though there have been repeated, randomized clinical trials that compared stents with more conservative forms of treatment such as physical therapy and lifestyle changes showing that stents in individuals having stable chest pain prevent no heart attacks and “extend the lives of patients a grand total of not at all” (Epstein 266). Ironically, there is more risk from the post-op complications, as well as during the procedure, than any real or perceived benefit. Cardiologists who specialize in the use of stents reported that they couldn’t believe that stents did not work even in times where their compensation had no tie to the procedure being done. The point here, that Epstein is attempting to illustrate, is that specialists might often bring a very single-track, linear perspective to solving problems. In this case, the data clearly contradicts the rationale being used. Cardiologists are aware of the lack of information supporting the continued use of stents, yet they still try to solve the same issue with one solution. The generalists in this world regularly bring a wide array of perspectives to the table and take seemingly disparate ideas to solve problems more effectively. I believe that this kind of dot connecting is the superpower of a great program manager and it is what Torq tries very hard to cultivate in the team. Often times in program management, we are working with clients that have specialists in every area of their organization. Any enterprise initiative deals with the whole gamut of experts: accounting, finance, operations, technology, legal, compliance. The list goes on and on! But time and time again, the room full of very qualified and intelligent experts can’t bring the program across the finish line without a few key people to bring them all together and make sure they are bringing the right perspective to get out of their silos and solve the problems in front of them.

One great recent example of a Torq employee that was able to put their range to work comes from one of our newest project managers, Mathew. He has been working on the program we referenced earlier which involved automotive financial services. When Mat was brought on, he was completely new to the automotive industry. However, prior to Torq he had worked in healthcare for many years. At face value, this background and experience seems completely unrelated to a complicated program in a totally foreign industry. That couldn’t have been further from the truth. As an outsider to the specialized knowledge, he was able to reframe the problem and add monumental value to the program. Running a business in the health care space crosses over into great deal of the HR / workforce management related components of this new endeavor. The hiring and recruiting challenges that Mathew faced as a healthcare director allowed him to quickly ramp up much of the workforce management aspects, such as training, hiring, and turnover challenges, had many identifiable similarities across the two landscapes. Mat’s experience put him in a position to quickly understand what was happening in a new, complex engagement. The automotive experts in the room, much like the heart surgeons, all thought the problem could be solved like they always did, but the breadth of experience allowed Mat to challenge the status quo and suggest solutions that were novel and, more importantly, that worked!


 

Teamwork Makes the Dream Work (work with specialists)


Now that we have figured out that program management is wicked, and we know that being “rangey” can help us become masters in our field, I guess we can all just become generalists and move on, right? Wrong! Just as not everyone can/should have deep specialization in a particular field, we cannot all swing the pendulum in the exact opposite direction, and all become generalists. The magic really happens when you have a symbiotic relationship between specialists and generalists. To illustrate this point, Epstein detailed a project that the psychologist Philip Tetlock ran called the “Good Judgement Project”. In this project, Tetlock was trying to determine what kind of teams were the best forecasters based on the characteristics of the project volunteers. He characterized his volunteers as hedgehogs or foxes. Hedgehogs know one big thing really well (specialists) like rolling up into an almost impregnable ball. While foxes know many little things (generalists) very well. “Hedgehogs tend to see simple, deterministic rules of cause and effect framed by their area of expertise…foxes see complexity in what others mistake for simple cause and effect. They understand that most cause-and-effect relationships are probabilistic, not deterministic.” In an uncertain and constantly changing world, Epstein asserts foxlike traits are an asset. During this project, Tetlock found that generally the volunteers with foxlike breadth performed better than the volunteers with hedgehog-like depth at forecasting. He found that the generalists were also the best collaborators and that “the best forecasters view their own ideas as hypotheses in need of testing. Their aim is not to convince their teammates of their own expertise, but to encourage their teammates to help them falsify their own notions.” (Epstein 227). That being said, Tetlock says the ideal choice is a team of “foxes with dragonfly eyes. Dragonfly eyes are composed of tens of thousands of lenses, each with a distinct perspective, which are synthesized in the dragonfly’s brain.” (Epstein 225). While this specialist/generalist combo may be the best choice, this may be about as mythical as it sounds! Instead, a team with a combination of foxes and hedgehogs is the ideal mix that brings out the best on your team. At Torq, we do everything we can to find Program Managers with range so they can be the foxes on their teams and foster the collaboration needed unlock the expertise of the hedgehogs.

On a program that Torq has recently helped mobilize, one of our project managers, Jake, has done a great job to bring a lot of range to the program. While the details of this program are confidential, it is centered around building out a new business unit for one of our biggest clients. The program team is full of experts in their various areas, but the team had been stagnating a bit before we were engaged. Jake has been able to ask the right questions to bring out the expertise of the specialists and to encourage collaboration. In one specific example, Jake leveraged some of his recent experience in the financial industry to ask some probing questions about the financing process that was being discussed and how attrition was being considered in this process. The key expert in this new business unit had specialized in this type of business for so long that he hadn’t thought about the implications of attrition on this model because of the nature of the business. This novel perspective on the program allowed us to bring in other specialists that had deep financing expertise to weigh in on the question. We were able to uncover a potential risk very early in the program and effectively mitigate what could have been a major issue down the road. Thank goodness for Jake’s range!


 

Conclusion


The 10,000-hour rule proves invaluable for “Kind” jobs and professions, however Program Management is not “Kind.” Program Management exists in a “Wicked” environment, and within that environment range proves to be the more valuable contributor to success. Torq practices hiring individuals with exceptional range to fill our clients Program Management needs. This has been a proven advantage across all our current clients and paves the way for future projects.

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