The Value of a Range of Experience

I am currently reading a book called Range by David Epstein. The book focuses on why people with a wide range of experience can outperform those that hyper-focus on a specialization in certain fields of endeavor.  If you want to create a world class golfer or chess grandmaster, then early and focused training will get the job done (think Tiger Woods and Magnus Carlsen). But for many occupations, it can be more useful to have a wide range of experience, especially when it comes to thinking innovatively or needing to enable creative problem-solving.

I was fascinated with a cognitive psychology problem illustrated in Range, which was originally posed by Karl Drucker in the 1930’s as a hypothetical:  You are a doctor faced with a patient with a malignant stomach tumor. The cancer is inoperative but left untreated, the patient will die. There is a ray that will destroy the tumor, if focused on the tumor with sufficient intensity. However, at that intensity, all the healthy tissue the ray passes through will be destroyed. If the ray intensity is reduced, the healthy tissue is unaffected, but it does not affect the tumor either. What kind of procedure might be used to destroy the tumor using the ray without destroying any healthy tissue?  Now, I know that most of you reading this are bankers, not doctors, but think on this problem a bit. Do you have any ideas on how you can save this patient?  I’ll admit I was initially stumped.

Before Epstein revealed the answer to the cancer patient problem, he gave a couple of additional examples to think about. One was about a general who needed to storm a fortress. The fortress had many roads leading into where it was located, but they were strewn with mines, only allowing a small number of soldiers to pass through safely.  So, the general synchronized their watches and sent his troops across many roads to attack the fortress at the same time.  Another story was about a fire chief who arrives at a woodshed fire and is concerned that it will spread to the nearby house. The homeowner and neighbors were going to a nearby lake and filling pails of water to dump on the fire, but they weren’t making any progress. The fire chief ordered them to stop, go to the lake and fill their pails, and then circle the woodshed. On the count of three, everyone threw their water on the fire, which extinguished it.

Okay, have you saved the cancer patient?  If not, don’t feel bad. According to Epstein, only about 10% of people solve it initially, about 30% of people can solve it if the fortress story is added, and about 50% of people solve it if the fire chief story is added. The solution is to focus multiple low intensity rays at the tumor from different directions, such that the collective intensity is sufficient to destroy the tumor, but healthy tissue is unaffected.  Perhaps you were able to solve it once the additional analogy stories were added to the mix.  The takeaway is that when we can bring outside experience from disparate fields into our problem-solving sessions, it may be much easier to come up with solutions or at least, spur creative thinking about the problem.  Which then spurs the question: how do we address this from a perspective of financial services?

I have opined many times that practically no one starts out with the goal of being a banker.  There are very few universities with banking degrees (Ole Miss has one …), and when you poll bankers about their degrees, you’ll find Business Administration, Finance, Accounting, Political Science, Education, and many more degrees represented. Most bankers I meet had an idea of a career in another field and wound up as a banker. In some cases, they started at a bank as a part-time job while in high school or college and made a career out of it. Others had full time jobs in other fields, and for whatever reason, moved into banking as an alternative career choice.  What this means is that banks are filled with people with outside experience that can be applied to problem-solving and creativity.

So how can you use this idea of the value of general knowledge to address financial services problem-solving?  For starters, you should assess what level of general knowledge you actually have.  Do a skills assessment of all bank employees across the entire enterprise and ask enough questions to ascertain what knowledge, skills and experience in areas outside of financial services exists.  This will yield information that can be compiled into a spreadsheet. Create columns for each type of outside experience, perhaps in general categories (i.e., education, consulting, non-profit, construction, insurance, etc.).  When you want to tackle a specific problem, instead of only having those with deep specific expertise tackle that issue, include people with more diverse experience on the team.  Therefore, there will be other analogies and other experiences that can be brought to bear on solving the problem.  Make sure that the domain experts understand and value the input from the generalists.  There is nothing worse than to involve others into the mix and then have the domain experts ignore their efforts completely (trust me, this does happen … often).

Another value of the skills assessment will be when there is an issue with a customer, and you need someone that has some detailed knowledge of how that business / industry works.  If you had an insurance company that has an issue with a loan repayment and they are explaining some issue related to their business that is affecting their ability to repay, how nice to know that you have a former insurance agent working as a loan officer at the Pine Street branch?  By tapping into expertise outside of financial services you are also offering employees a chance to opine on issues / problems outside of their area, which creates a better esprit d corps across the entire enterprise. I have seen so much animosity between loans and operations over the years to know that anything that can be done to foster a solid working relationship across the bank should be enabled.

At the end of the day, the more we form cross-functional teams and specifically foster the ability to bring multi-domain experience to our problem solving, the more innovative we will become as financial services providers.  Innovation is critical to become the entity that today’s millennials and tomorrow’s Gen Zs will look to for financial services.  Let me know how your institution is tackling the problem-solving challenges you are facing; I’d love to hear from you at