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Think Like A Generalist So You Can Act Like A Specialist

As I keep working on the message of “how” we get things done online, I’m getting clearer about this concept of generalized vs. specialized thinking and action.

Those of you who know me or have read any of my Analyze This posts have probably heard this “lead pipes” example I throw around. The idea is this (warning – hyperbole ahead):

Let’s say that for some reason, you built a house and didn’t connect it to the city’s water system. One day, you realize that you’d like to bathe and shower and drink water from the faucet, so you call a plumber to hook your house up to the water system.

When the plumber gets there, you explain that you’d like to have him connect the house to the city’s pipes. He says, “I can do that,” and proceeds to dig up your yard, lay down pipes, make the connections, etc.

When he’s done, he walks into the house, turns on a faucet and says, “There you go! Water.”

You grab a glass out of your cabinet and put it under the faucet, filling it up as he watches, his expression changing from pride to worry. You put the glass up to your mouth and right before you can drink, he jumps up and hits the glass out of your hand: “What are you doing!? You can’t drink that!”

“Why not?”

“That water will poison you! You have lead plumbing! What are you thinking?”

“I was thinking you understood why you were doing what you were doing in my yard.”

OK, so I think we can all see clearly that this is a powerful script fit for Ben Affleck, but moving on…

The issue here is that of thinking like a specialist and then acting like a specialist. I think it’s important to distinguish the thinking (how we diagnose and theorize about fixing an issue) from the acting (how we make our contribution), because they are not the same thing. While I would never recommend that a talented specialist stop acting like a specialist, I would almost always recommend that a specialist completely cease thinking like a specialist.

Why thinking like a specialist is destructive

In the example above, the plumber decided to use the wrong equipment for the job because he didn’t know the purpose or implications of his actions. By seeing the problem as a narrow one, he solved it in a narrow way, missing the point, the greater purpose.

Online, we fall into this trap all the time. We need more traffic to our site: let’s buy it. We need better rankings: let’s edit headers, title and meta, alt tags, and make changes to our architecture. And frequently, we either ignore (or worse yet, we damage) the core reason that we’re asking for that traffic and those rankings in the first place: the performance of the business. We need to drink the water, but frequently our actions poison the very water we need to drink.

In business, we are looking for one thing: increased cash flow. Getting rankings will get you more Schrute bucks. More traffic from paid search: major thumbs-up, or banners, gold stars for you! Better copy, A+. Improved information architecture will certainly earn you kudos, and a beautiful design is sure to provide you a few trophies. But at the end of the day, you can’t add up your Schrute bucks, thumbs, stars, A+’s, kudos and awards (or visits, visitors, page views, etc.) and direct-deposit them into a bank account.

When people think like specialists and then act as specialists, their decisions and recommendations lack critical context. They make recommendations that other specialists can’t understand. They get into arguments over which priority outweighs the others. They make search-enhancing and user-destructive changes, in some cases (I know the bright and brilliant readership here doesn’t, but a lot do!). And this is where the rife internal conflict we see in web operations and agencies begins to flourish.

So what should we do differently?

Like I said before, specialists should continue acting like specialists. But for us to enter web nirvana we have to start thinking like generalists.

Let me start with a real-life example to illustrate. In medicine, all doctors go through the same core training and lessons on their way to specialization. They all learn how to give an injection, how to understand the effects and conflicts of various medicines, and they learn about a wide array of conditions and how to diagnose them.

Doctors go through this because the practice of medicine is complicated and misdiagnosis is a very real problem for them. Aches in your arm can signal heart attack. Head pain can signal stomach issues. Pain in your feet can be related to your spine and brain. So it’s critical that the various doctors who specialize in the different parts of your body can see the issue in a global sense, not in a local one, because a foot doctor may find a brain problem. The practice of medicine, to a large extent, has made every effort to nullify the adage, “When you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” Of course, someone will probably comment with a malpractice case, but the point is the idea is planted.

In our world, however, we struggle with this problem a great deal more. And no, I don’t think we should have 42 years of school to fix our problem, but I do think that we can learn (and quickly) how to appreciate multiple perspectives when we are confronted with a problem. Our own education in this industry is almost the opposite experience: we have this idea of specialization so driven into our minds that many companies actually can’t understand why employees want to cross-train, never mind them ever encouraging it. It’s not a coincidence that when you ask your teams why sales suck, you get this:

  • Marketing team says increase budget
  • Usability team says redesign key pages and funnels
  • Information architecture: pay for a new site search utility
  • SEO team says optimize the site
  • IT: hire more people to help us work through the backlog
  • Copy: give us the ability to communicate clearer messages to users
  • Designers: make it look cooler, tell those copy dorks to go read Twilight

This would be great if you had unlimited time, money and talent pools, but such is not the case. We have to prioritize and decide, and the answer needs to be a blend of the above tactics. But almost nobody you ask will give you a generalist answer. They diagnose the site with a specialist mind. Hammer. Nail.

What has to happen is that the SEO thinks about what happens to that traffic once visitors arrive. What is their intent? Where are they likely (or where are they already) going to be landing? What will they read and see when they get there? What will they do next? What other information do they need? Does that SEO still think that he needs to push rankings harder and harder, or is someone else’s craft going to fix the problem more quickly or completely? Has the foot signaled a brain problem, or are we stuck there trying to force a toe surgery?

Then people will start acting like specialists. OK, I know the landing page. Let me work with a usability guy and a copy guy to see what optimizations we can make to markup, layout and copy that help both of our causes? By separating the diagnosis from the actions, your specialists will make specific recommendations with other specialists to fix the disease, not their specific symptom.

Analyze this!

So, what does this have to do with this column? Your analytics team should help you moderate this. They should help you find issues. They should help you make the right diagnosis by matching data and behavior against your teams’ efforts to diagnose, and they should measure and analyze the response to the tactics your teams have agreed should improve you situation.

Oh, and one more thing: they’ll show you success in cash. They’ll map your specialist contribution to the one thing that matters in the end. Your analytics tools and people are the national bank of Schrute bucks, stars, thumbs and awards, and I’d encourage you to ask them what the exchange rates are today.

As a follow-up, here’s a post I wrote about how to use this model to identify a great SEO partner (have a look if you have the time): The New Search Engine Optimization – SEO 2.0.

What’s your experience? How have you defeated this issue in your business? Please share your thoughts in the comments!

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.

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