I was taught from an early age that one shouldn’t be narrow-minded, and I understand the logic there. We’ve all probably missed untold opportunities due to narrow thinking.
For instance, business gurus often point out that the railroad industry lost ground because they saw themselves as being in the freight business instead of the broader transportation business, conceding the latter to the automobile and airplane industries.
Many of us are also taught as children to diversify. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket, they say. And I’ve always been amazed by great men like Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin. They were true renaissance men who had many interests, and demonstrated tremendous creativity and expertise in so many of them.
However, by personal experience, I can attest to the fact that a huge percentage of our management-related problems and lack of performance comes from spreading our efforts too thinly and/or insufficient focus. Certainly, the sayings about having too many irons in the fire, or burning a candle at both ends, have an element of truth in them; firms like FedEx lend credence to them. After all, FedEx was unsuccessful with its initial business approach of being all things to all people. It was only when FedEx began to focus exclusively on overnight delivery that it truly began to succeed.
Our military also believes in a narrow-minded focus. When an army assaults a position, it typically doesn’t attack the entire front, but concentrates its force to bring superior numbers and firepower in a given area in hopes of overrunning the opponent. We do something similar in sports, when we work to learn the weaknesses of our opponent and then strive to exploit them to our advantage.
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It is funny then that, in the face of these commonsense approaches, we in agriculture nonetheless tend to love generalists. Specialization in our business is associated with increased risk. Agriculture is unique in so many ways – the values its practitioners hold, the hours and work ethic they possess, the uncertainty that comes from relying on Mother Nature. Still, I think that what really sets production agriculture apart is that we, as commodity producers, tend to not regard our fellow producers as competition.
Many other industries don’t work that way. They tend to view their business more like a war, in that you must take advantage of your strengths and exploit your opponents’ weaknesses. Yes, our competitors are pork, poultry and foreign producers, but they’re also our neighbors and friends. So we tend to view our success as dependent on identifying and doing something far more efficiently than they can do it. I think we need to be customer-focused, but competitor-oriented.
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