(This post assumes that you like or love Metallica. If you don’t like Metallica, please replace Metallica in the rest of the post with another music artist that you like who’s career has spanned over 25 years and performs live often.)

Here’s a link to a video of Metallica playing “For Whom the Bell Tolls” in 1984. This is one of the first times they played this song. It was raw, it was rapid, it was good.

Fast forward 15 years, here’s Metallica again playing “For Whom the Bell Tolls” with the San Francisco Symphony  Orchestra on the live S&M album. Same song, almost all the same artists — Cliff Burton passed away in 1986, and Jason Newsted was on bass in ’99 — but otherwise, exact same artists, exact same song.

The S&M version is elegant, complex, and welcomes in a symphony orchestra to add to the beauty of the song. For one thing, listen for the double bass rhythm that Lars Ulrich has on the drums in the 1999 version.

If Metallica had been promoted to managers of performers, and then directors and VPs of performers, this would never have happened. (I know I’m picking an extreme example, but go with me, please!)

Malcolm Gladwell wrote about this with the 10,000 hour rule but this is about the approximately 30,000 hour rule. This is about the experienced expert. In most literature today, the “leader” is central, but most organizations are much flatter today, with many more specialist roles.

Steve Jobs made this observation about software developers — who are, by definition, specialists. “I observed something fairly early on at Apple, which I didn’t know how to explain then, but have thought a lot about it since. Most things in life have a dynamic range in which average to best is at most 2:1. For example, if you go to New York City and get an average taxi cab driver versus the best taxi cab driver, you’ll probably get to your destination with the best taxi driver 30% faster. And an automobile: What’s the difference between the average car and the best? Maybe 20%?  The best CD player versus the average CD player? Maybe 20%? So 2:1 is a big dynamic range for most things in life. Now, in software, and it used to be the case in hardware, the difference between the average software developer and the best is 50:1; Maybe even 100:1.

I believe this is true for all specialist roles — and when we encourage specialists to stay specialists — we create better organizations. George Hallenbeck has defined such specialists as “high professionals” and has presented on how these folks are often mistaken for “high potentials.”

Individual contributors define the success of any organization. Often, the investment in individual contributors is the lowest in all organizations. This is quite understandable from the typical pyramid view of organizational structure. But now that the pyramid is wider and  flatter, the way we think about that pyramid must change.

What is your organization doing for your individual contributors? How are you attracting, developing, and retaining the best of the best? How are you setting up your rock stars?

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