16 May 2016

Specialised Evolution // In the Studio

While watching the film ‘Life of Pi’ recently, a thought struck me. Well, lot’s of thoughts struck me - it is quite a thought-provoking movie after all, but this one thought in particular was less about the film, and more about business.

A young man, known as ‘Pi’, ends up on a boat floating in the middle of the ocean, and his only companion at sea is a fully grown Bengal Tiger, called Richard Parker. It struck me that the tiger - such a well adapted hunter on land - becomes a sitting duck when removed from his natural habitat, and placed at sea.

I first thought about how important it is to specialise - about sticking to what you know best. To be a real specialist is how you make your name, and build a reputation for excellence. Personally, I really dislike it when a company offers a really eclectic mix of services or products. They risk coming across as a jack of all trades, and a master of none. They may offer adequate products or services, but without ever excelling. It’s not something you’d want to put in your marketing materials for sure.

It’s interesting to see how some large companies have developed though, especially those selling products - they appear to be doing the opposite of specialising. You only have to look at supermarkets such as Tesco, or online marketplaces like Amazon, and it’s not too difficult to envisage a future where there are only a handful of places that sell products, as each one stocks just about everything you could ever need. If I think of a product now that isn’t an everyday item, I often think ‘where on earth can I buy that from?’, and 99 times out of 100 I’d check Amazon first, for ease.

But looking more closely, this isn’t an example of these companies not being specialists. Selling a huge range of products isn’t really the same thing as being a jack of all trades - it’s just doing more of something you already specialise in. Individual products would be manufactured by different companies, in different parts of the world, and then sold. They are just a centralised platform for selling, and that is their speciality - selling.

Having said how crucial it is for businesses to specialise, it’s just as important for them to be able to evolve, in order to avoid extinction. Evolving doesn’t mean offering multiple new services at random, just because there is a boom. Businesses should look at their strongest areas outside of what they already specialise in, and select the one that offers the most potential for growth. This way a business would grow organically, evolving into this new area naturally over time, helping the business to become stronger, and more resistant to change.

The tiger, for example, would be better suited to moving from the forests in India to the rolling countryside of the UK, rather than to a life at sea - there are far more transferable skills for a life in the UK, compared to that at sea. At sea, despite the abundance of food, the tiger would not survive.

So, just as for the tiger, it’s best to selectively evolve your business over time, rather than be lost at sea having made a sudden change of direction.

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