The Limits of Specialists

We ended 2014 on something of a perceived high. Specialists were reveling in a recovering economy, jobs growth, and bright prospects for 2015.

As we enter 2015, it feels different. Oil Prices, Greece, Syriza, Elections.

In reality of course, nothing has changed except the people we pay attention to; and we tend to pay attention to specialists. This is not to decry specialists – anything but, they are vital. But there are two sorts.

Firstly, the “professional specialists” – managers, pundits, politicians – those whose living depends on them being seen as the “go to” to help us manage our relationship with uncertainty. The problem tends to be that these specialists see the world through the lens of their specialism, and their status within it. One of their biggest fears is to be seen to be deficient in their knowledge, and are very unlikely to get promoted, or voted for, by saying “I don’t know”.

The second group; I’ll call them “vocational specialists” are different. Their focus is the body of knowledge of their profession, and their purpose is its ability to support and help others – Teachers, Doctors, Social workers. These are people whose ethic is based as much on what they don’t know – being able to spot gaps and anomalies – and use their expertise as a platform for finding out. They have no problem in saying “I don’t know”.

The challenge for us cones when we try to treat them in the same way. The ay we measure teacher’s performance using just hard metrics and financial incentives is not only limiting, it’s hugely demotivating to people whose intrinsic motivation lies elsewhere. Similarly, asking professional specialists to use anything other than hard data to measure their performance is equally limiting.

What we have lost along the way is the role of the generalist – those who look at the bigger picture without the blinkers of a specialist, have an understanding of both sides, who are able to allocate specialists appropriately, and maintain a constructive balance so that all are giving their best, learning, and enjoying what they do.

At a time of increasing uncertainty, we need generalists. The best are likely to act as “Consigliere” – advisers and influencers (though the image of “The Godfather” might cloud perception!). Another model might be a Concierge. These types of individual make things happen, make sure context is maintained, and keep things together – enabling the specialists to do their best work. It is a very real, and very challenging, position.

As we get into our stride in 2015, the one thing we can be certain of is that events will occur which will confound specialist predictions. Those who rely on specialists alone will carry the burden – as happened in 2008.

Maybe one of the challenges for us is to create a better balance, and recognize generalists for the perspective and balance they bring, so that we end up less surprised than we might otherwise be.

Being less surprised is more prepared, and more prepared is more successful.

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