Accueil > Business schools, Développement personnel, Management > Why career specialization is like eating too much non-fat frozen yogurt: The Snackwell Effect & the Inverted Long Tail

Why career specialization is like eating too much non-fat frozen yogurt: The Snackwell Effect & the Inverted Long Tail

I used to own several retail business outlets and though the management of them could be difficult and I have long moved on, looking back I feel I got the best education in business, psychology and economics that no university in the world could ever provide. This education helped provide me a valuable perspective when I went back to the corporate world, and ironically, was the impetus to get back out which lead me to having a more fulfilling career at present as an independent professional.

What I would like to discuss specifically, is a phenomenon I witnessed as a co-operator of a frozen yogurt franchise a few years back that has, in my opinion, far reaching implication to how people are over specializing and basically typecasting their careers to obscurity! I suggest you all read about this, but especially those with highly functional or industry specific niches will especially want to pay attention.

As a retail owner or manager, you are always looking for ways to increase sales (while simultaneously reducing costs if possible, something corporate employees either don’t really acknowledge or don’t care in my observations) and with the advent of computerized point of sale (POS) systems, you can track and see sales trends in real time (all this hype recently about « big data » in the corporate world is something even small retail owners have been doing for some time). The yogurt store when we took over it (and the reason for the good price we bought it for) was that it had flat sales for some time. Therefore, like any other good retail owner we experimented with various marketing schemes and rotation of flavors to see if it would increase sales and track them rigorously in real-time.

Here was our strategy: we noticed that many customers would comment that they could not believe how good tasting the non-fat yogurt was and we of course, noticed that the best sellers were non-fat. In addition, we also noticed that people who bought non-fat yogurt put more toppings on them and since we sold yogurt by the ounce, this added to our increased revenue. So we swapped all the yogurt with the non-fat variety and experimented with various flavors and tracked the sales. We also very prominently promoted the health benefits of frozen yogurt over traditional ice-cream and of course, highlighted that our yogurt was non-fat!

Here was some of the interesting results: Initially sales did increase and for some flavors (like red velvet cake) it went up substantially. But over time, some customers complained that they missed some core flavors (like plain old vanilla and chocolate) or that we rotated them too much. Over time, sales flattened out again and ironically, customer demand pushed us back to about where we were prior: a mix of low-fat and non-fat, core staple flavors (vanilla, choc, etc.) and toppings. And though this is only anecdotal, I think people caught on that just because something was non-fat, using this to justify eating more of it and putting more high calorie toppings was not exactly rational. 🙂

So what does this have to do with career specialization? Pretty much everything I believe! Here’s why:

The first has to do with something called the « Snackwell Effect » and as this Wikipedia entryoutlines, it « is a phenomenon that states that dieters will eat more low-calorie cookies, such as SnackWells, than they otherwise would for normal cookies. » As was outlined above, having the moniker « non-fat » emphasized in our marketing, caused people to eat more frozen yogurt than they otherwise would have eaten (as well as putting much more high fat and sugary toppings!). Likewise, due to the extreme competitive forces many full-time employees feel these days and the ease with which one can obtain degrees (many online w/out ever having to step foot on a campus) and specialized certifications, many are following the harmful motto of « the more degrees and certifications I acquire, the more I will differentiate myself and land a better job. »

The problem with this approach is that unless you are already wealthy (which could not be the case since the pursuit of these degrees and certifications indicate that you are doing this for a better job and more wealth), you could end up racking up lots of debt (especially the student kind). It is also of the psychological kind, in that a person can become quite obsessive about getting more and more degrees and certifications. Just go on any LinkedIn discussion board and you will often see people asking « now that I have degree/certification X, should I also get degree/certification Y and/or Z too? ».

This becomes a vicious circle of people getting more degrees and certifications creating a kind of « arms race » among professionals all looking to differentiate themselves, when all they are doing is specializing themselves to death in a world that needs more holistic and what I refer to as « deep generalist » thinkers.

There’s another paradoxical effect as well, which I like to refer to as the « inverted long tail ». It inverts a concept made popular by Chris Anderson in a 2004 Wired magazine article. The concept basically is that due to the internet, products with low demand and low sales can collectively equal or even surpass popular best sellers due to large distribution sellers like Amazon, eBay, etc. that can sell them to anyone and anywhere. Many people, including myself, have interpreted and extended this concept to mean that any individual can through the internet (and/or social media as is now popularly hyped) dominate a niche in the long tail that collectively can be bigger than mainstream outlets.

For example, to use a professional field that I’m heavily in, namely project management, you now see many individuals on blogs, social media (LinkedIn especially), etc. and even offline engagements such as speaking and providing workshops, seminars etc. at professional events explode in the last decade. I see this same phenomenon in other professional specialties whether it’s IT, accounting, law, etc. I outlined this phenomenon in a previous article on the « signal-to-noise » of social media where so much of this is making it hard to be heard in a growing sea of social media noise.

But the paradox has a corollary in that it inverts the whole idea of the long tail. In a critique outlined in a 2008 Harvard Business Review article by Anita Elberse, she outlines data that shows how as the long tail grows, it actually works the reverse of what Chris Anderson proposed in that blockbuster hits become more popular. In other words, in accordance with my signal-to-noise paradox theory, as the noise of all these long tail specialist grows, more and more people gravitate towards things that are more simpler, popular and familiar.

So for all of you out there obsessively getting more and more degrees and certifications to differentiate yourselves and those professionals clamoring to build a platform in your specialty niche profession, you may be helping to only amplify the desires of organizations, hiring managers and recruiters to seek individuals who are already well known and established that have a simple, yet compelling and consistent narrative brand. At some point there will have to be a diminishing return for posting degree and certification acronyms on your resume and LinkedIn profile, posting yet another industry specific « ho-hum » or « me too » article and building a brand platform that is indistinguishable from the sea of others.

So what’s the solution? It’s pretty simple, before you invest time and energy to obtaining another degree or certification, post « yet another article » about something mundane in your specialty niche, think carefully about who it really benefits. To be honest, I’m not sure who this article benefits but it beats writing yet another article on « how to lead a project » or worse, another « how to create a project communication plan »… yuck, what a snorefest!

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