“Focus” is having a great run these days. Daniel Goleman’s book on it is excellent. People with focus are able to capture more information, complete tasks sooner, become skilled in a discipline earlier. Malcolm Gladwell has written eloquently about the need to spend 10,000 hours in order to truly master a subject. There’s a lot to be said for single-mindedness.
But let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water. “Ampersands” may be undervalued at the moment, but they are rising in importance, particularly for businesses looking to create value. Focus is great, but watch out for Ampersand Nation.
What is an “ampersand,” you ask? An ampersand is a person who is comfortable in more than one discipline: public & private, business & society, country & western. Ampersands cross over from academia to government or from government to the private sector or non-profits and vice versa. Ampersands study both medicine and law, engineering and design, math and philosophy. They use both the left and the right brain, and tend to think laterally as opposed to linearly. Left-brain ampersands tend to split their interests and pursue them more or less simultaneously, while right-brained ampersands tend to be more focused, but borrow ingredients from other specialties and synthesize them.
Perhaps the most famous living ampersand is Bill Gates — software developer turned philanthropist. Many politicians are ampersands: Mark Warner, the senator from Virginia, was a successful business man in a previous life; Tim Geithner is a fledgling ampersand, moving from a career spent in government over to Wall Street. Other famous ampersands in history include Winston Churchill, Teddy Roosevelt, Steve Jobs, Richard Feynman, Sir Richard Branson, Clare Boothe Luce, Marie Curie and of course, Leonardo da Vinci.
Many business leaders are ampersand thinkers, because business inherently involves taking certain inputs and turning them into something else. Let’s take a bunch of steel, fabric, plastic, aluminum and some other ingredients and turn them into … an airplane or a computer or a car. Let's see if we can produce energy and save the environment. Often, the “and” in a question is what leads to differentiation, specialization and value creation.
Ampersands identify bridges and connections, and as such, are particularly prevalent in the corporate responsibility and sustainability space. They want to do well and do good. They want to maximize economic value and environmental outcomes. You often see corporate responsibility leads having had previous careers working on environmental, social or governance issues. Companies hire them because they can translate different cultures and values system to the company and are able to communicate what the company does back to these different constituencies.
Ampersands certainly have their downsides. They are often heretics, and can cause discomfort and disruption. Because they bring different perspectives to bear on business questions, they sometimes “think wrong” about a problem, and can stumble over what seem like perfectly obvious assumptions by the rest of the team. They can rub linear thinkers the wrong way because they seem to skip from topic to topic, and don’t seem to stay focused. They are most likely to go “off message,” “muddy the waters” and over-complexify simple things. Ampersands are likely to be burned at the stake, imprisoned, voted off the island or fired, depending on their era and context.
On the other hand, ampersands are often huge sources of creativity within an enterprise. Because they bring different perspectives to bear, they can originate new products, streamline production, develop different recipes or solutions, come up with new formulas, and originate new paradigms and ways of thinking. They may break the mold, but they also make new ones.
This is why some companies are increasingly embracing ampersands outside of the CSR and sustainability tracks. You are starting to see procurement officers who are grounded in diversity and inclusion management, HR officers who are students of employee engagement techniques, marketers who are tapping into ethical values systems and technology, financial analysts who are looking for profitable investments by pursuing non-traditional investment theories.
As a result, consumers are seeing a proliferation of mash-ups. You want to save money and live better; a cola that tastes like lemonade, is fortified with vitamins and saves the environment. Smart phones are walking mash-ups. Cars are getting into the game. You would think clothes are just about being worn, but now they are increasingly mashing up, too. Just wait til the “Internet of Things” kicks in, and everything starts talking back at us. The identity of everything will become more complex.
Companies and non-profits who embrace ampersands not only open themselves up to new product and service innovations, they also open themselves up to new ways of working with others. Ampersands help to facilitate partnerships, business webs, win-win revenue and fundraising models, and of course, crowdsourcing.
Single-mindedness may help you to achieve excellence within a given discipline sooner, but lateral thinking will help to provide breadth of experience that can cut across and benefit multiple disciplines. Linear thinkers can be significantly helped by lateral thinkers, and vice versa.
Currently, there is a bit of an educational bias toward promoting linear thinking. In some countries, such as France, tracking can begin as early as middle school. American universities like to encourage students to explore, but they also often require them to choose a major. Academia tends to reward narrow specialists with tenure, and tends to punish more eclectic thinkers who have harder times getting published within professional journals (though interdisciplinary academic journals are growing in number).
We don’t necessarily have all of the tools needed to help people cultivate their lateral thinking skills, and there are very real fears that lateral thinking can undermine the ability of people to think logically and rigorously in a linear fashion.
But in the future, the U.S. will increasingly becomean ampersand nation. Already, the average tenure in a job is three years and the average adult changes jobs 11 times before the age of 50. In addition, people make on average 2-3 major career changes over the course of their lives. The economy, technology, culture, affluence, longevity — almost all of the major factors influencing modern society are dictating that people will have to become more comfortable understanding different worlds, networks, cultures, values, systems and ideas.
We already see the “Power of And” in Ford commercials and Clinton Global Initiative announcements, the increasingly common usage of words like “hybrid,” “cross-over,” “dual-track" and so on. Look at how many value propositions are dual track: “Save More. Live Better,” “Pay Less. Do More,” “Tastes Great. Less Filling.”
This is the deeper implication of rising ampersands — they expect more. They expect quality and value. They expect value and values. They expect performance and purpose. They may give many businesses a lot of headaches, but for those businesses that understand them, they can generate tremendous new opportunities … even if they think differently.
This post first appeared on the IO Sustainability blog on December 2, 2013.