Generalists in an age of Specialists?

Firstly, we have to determine what we mean by Generalists. They are not just “non specialists”, or those with a varied background. Just as Specialists develop through “deliberate practice“, so Generalists develop through what I might term deliberate variety – the deliberate accumulation of varied experiences that will later interlink to create insight. To make the leap between disciplines.

Deliberate practice is best known in relatively narrow fields with clearly defined boundaries – most sports and many professions where what is required is to develop perfection in a limited range of moves through constantly stretching ourselves against ever more challenging goals. Incremental improvement down a fairly linear path.

Generalists however develop the ability to dance between disciplines. To recognise when techniques or ideas from one area might be applied in another. One example from innovation is exaption – an example being how the wine press was adapted to invent early moveable type printing presses.

Most good generalists will have early experience in a range of fields, only later focusing more closely on an area that attracts them. It seems that purpose is important here, as it gives a focus into which to introduce previously unrelated, often disparate ideas in pursuit of making a difference to something important.

The challenge is that most our our education, training, and reward systems run counter to this. The focus needed to get a job and earn a good living favours specialisation. Generalists either have a maverick streak, or the advantage of either not having to have, or wanting to have a “regular job”. They go where things interest them.

As the capabilities we have trained for, from the professions to any job with siginicant routine become usurped by artificial intelligence and machine learning, accessing and developing generalist thinking skills – critical thinking, creativity, curiosity – will become ever more important to organisations and individuals. Life is not logic. Serendipity is often what changes things, and serendipity does not have to be an accident.

Although it has become mainstream, often in pursuit of “performance”, Coaching is an inherently disruptive calling. We work with clients not to get them to comply or follow fixed protocols (more the realm of training) but to connect them to their purpose and talents, to develop them and use them in their career. And with a million middle managers hating their jobs, Coaching can be a powerful catalyst for serendipity.

We cannot decide to become a generalist overnight. It takes longer to become an effective generalist than a specialist, as the fields to be embraced are so much wider.

We all have the raw material – curiosity, and a desire to pursue something beyond more money.

It has been noted that we become the average of the five people we most associate with. Perhaps in your circle, it would pay to have a generalist.

Where we are heading needs explorers more than map readers.

Are we nearly there yet?

For those of us interested in the nature of change, this is a fertile time.

It’s a though a whole bevy (what a great collective noun!) of black swans have taken flight (when they become a wedge – another great metaphor) and are heading right for us.

Our individual and collective reactions vary, but in general we tend to be negative. We see them as a potential threat, and hope that somehow we can stop them arriving – as though where we are now is where we really want to be.

We’d actually like other people to take care of it for us, whether its climate change, technology change, our politics or Brexit.

The inconvenient truth is that this is a system. All of it. And we’re part of that system. We have a duty to ourselves, and the communities we are part of not just to have a view, but to exercise it. We’re hugely privileged to live in what is still a democracy, no matter how bent out of shape it may have become.

What is clear is that these swan are coming in to land, and it behooves us to be ready. Depending on our mindsets, there will be as many positives (which we may not yet see) as there are negatives (most of which we see, and make up a few more for good measure)

What seems certain is that there will be significant change. I suspect, to switch metaphor, that it will be like a forest fire. It will take out old wood and dead wood to create room and nutrients for new growth. Parts of it will be frightening for us. It already is, because it’s something that is happening rather than something that is going to. We’re in the middle of it.

There’s lots we can do. We can not hope it will go away. We can not wait for somebody else to deal with it.

We can take action, no matter how small. Drive less, fly less, use technology, learn new ways of doing old habits, reduce unconscious dependence on chindogu. Use our imaginations. Refuse to be afraid. Do more than talk about it.

What we face is a great challenge, but that’s what, as humans, we are designed for.

Exploring Change – the speed of understanding

Over time. “Change Management” has become a label, like “Quality” and “Innovation”. The labels make the subject safe. People design a process, and make it something that can be done to people and organisations. I suggest that is a potentially lethal approach.

We have three reactions to change. the first is denial – the idea that this is an anomaly, and that things will get back to normal. The second is neutralisation – finding a way to cope with it. The third, is transformation.What initiates transformational change is understanding – a deep, meaningful, relationship with what is happening in our individual and business world. 

And what triggers understanding is engagement – curiosity and a motivation to explore what is happening and the confidence – and courage – to face it head on.

There are three triggers – a mindset that embraces change, the confidence to start without knowing quite where it will finish, and the motivation to do it.

In every organisation the most critical path is that of engagement. Engagement triggers inquiry. Inquiry triggers understanding. Understanding triggers action.

In every organisation – we can map that critical path. It is dependent on all the variables – personality, power, relationships.

It is not a “standard process” – a change machine. It is personal, thoughtful and generous, and it changes by the day.

Change happens at the speed of understanding. Anything less than understanding makes a business obsolescent.

GrowHouse is an inquiry based consultancy, specialises in exploration to find hidden sources of value, and the identification of sacred cows that hinders it.