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.

The limits of speciality

I haven’t blogged for ten days. Sometimes, life just happens. I’m surprised by how much I miss it – I hadn’t realised how much it helps to get thoughts down and take the risk of publishing them – a sort of self appraisal.

What took me away was interesting – something I’ve been looking at for a while suddenly turned up, like London buses, three at once. Hardly scientific evidence, but nonetheless it gave me pause for thought.

One of the traditional key rules of Coaching is to help the client think through issues within their own resources. For the most part that works, but not last week for me or them.

All three clients displayed different versions of the same issues.

The limits of specialisation.

Three different areas – a technology business, a service business, and a healthcare business. The technology business is a tightly focused specialist, the service business a sector specialist and the Healthcare business an animal specialist. The problem? – an apparent lack “peripheral vision”. They could not see effectively outside their “cone of expertise”, and “join the dots” when the challenge involves elements outside their specialist domain.

For many years, we have pursued the cult of specialism – deep expertise within a domain that enables us to provide answers quickly and effectively, and differentiate ourselves from others without our expertise.

That has been fine when things have been relatively stable, in what educationalists term “kind” learning environments. We can not only focus, we can follow the “10,000 hours rule”, developing our knowledge and instincts to find answers almost instictively.

However, we are in VUCA conditions, and the learning environment is far from kind. The knowledge bank that specialists, from Lawyers to Legislators have accumulated can now be replicated increasingly effectively via data science and AI.

Experience defined in terms of knowledge is edging rapidly towards the window. At the same time, the environment becomes far more volatile – the protection offered by trade bodies, professional associations and the like erodes. As communication becomes ubiquitous, technology connects everything to everything (and everyone) else the gaps in our markets that can be exploited by clever, well resourced, innovative, and sometimes criminal organisations and become increasingly disruptive.

Specialists, looking through their professional microscopes, do not see the bigger picture. They can become trapped in the worldview that has brought them success. They are partially sighted.

We are perhaps seeing the return of the generalist – someone with shallower expertise but much broader awareness and with less investment in their specialism. Someone who can cast their view wide, join the dots, and help the specialists see what they cannot see on their own.

From a coaching perspective, it’s an interesting challenge. My pre-coaching background is as a generalist – I have operated in a wide variety of environments, in many different cultures, mostly in areas that are emerging, preparing the ground for the specialists.

Now, what is required of me seems to be changing – to not only coach the individual to make the most of their inherent capabilities, but to introduce them to things beyond their specialist horizon, and help them make sense of it. To become something of an explorer on their behalf. To put my generalist capabilities at their service.

Specialists, left to their own devices, will continue to mine the seam they are in until it is close to exhaustion. Generalists, left to their own devices, will find new seams, but need the specialists to mine them.

In the current environment, success seems likely to belong to those who can sit effectively in the space between the generalists and the specialists to bring new opportunity into being.

Opportunity for those who can sit in this liminal space.

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.