Almost every company as we know it has specialist organizations to support its business priorities.
Organizations such as Finance, HR, IT and Marketing have been in existence for as long as we can remember. In most companies, domain expertise, efficiency and process execution dominate the agenda for these organizations. You get hired, promoted and measured based on your expertise and value-add in your particular specialization.
This is all good, but what happens when the organization needs to solve a big hairy problem or launches a new business model that requires all-hands on deck?
While some companies have been successful in bringing together cross-functional teams to work together towards a common goal, the teams often have limited perspective and the lack of the capability to connect the dots. The result: problems are not getting fixed.
Furthermore, in the age of mounting competition and vast technological change, the capabilities needed to successfully differentiate a company and win in the marketplace are much broader than they were in the past. That’s not to say that there aren’t brilliant minds working in IT, finance or HR, but if your company wants to be better than anyone else and relevant to its customers, you need new approaches and capabilities to be able to problem-find/problem-solve and execute on your vision.
Value creation and problem solving don’t always intersect within areas of specialization. More than often, they span across multiple disciplines and across lines of business and industries. We can no longer rely on just bringing together groups of specialists to solve our most complex problems. Instead, companies are in need of Generalist individuals with new, agile skills that can see the big picture, listen, synthesize ideas and connect the dots.
Why in the world would we need Generalists? Going back to 1776, in Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, division of labor always represented a qualitative increase in productivity. We’ve built our entire society and educational system around specialization. When asked what they wanted to be when they grow up, no child has likely ever answered “a generalist”.
We’ve been trained to perceive Generalists as ‘jacks of all trades – masters of none’, in other words, driving little to no value in the business. The new breed of ‘Generalist’ that our organizations desperately need defies and deeply challenges these perceptions.
The new Generalist is in fact a master of their trade. They bring expertise and experience in several areas, fueled by insatiable curiosity and the ability to “hyper-learn” new concepts and ideas.
They practice empathy to fully understand and break down the nature of complex problems and collaboratively engage specialists in reframing the problem in order to arrive at potential solutions.
They complement specialists, by challenging them to think differently, but never compete with them or take credit for their ideas. They approach challenges with an open mind, using a “how might we” mindset rather than come with pre-conceived ideas.
As outstanding communicators, they reframe, package and present ideas, helping decision makers visualize the future.
Lastly, they encourage and promote change from within by understanding and diffusing resistance to change.
If it sounds like these Generalists need to come from another planet, don’t stress. While it is likely far from the traditional roles you will see in an organization, if you take a deep look at your talent, you will be able to identify individuals with the right traits to play this critical role.
Consider looking at the following attributes as indicators of potential:
Attitude first, not only experience. A “Can-do” attitude and a high degree of motivation are a must. The Generalist must note constraints, but has to creatively encourage ways to work around them.
Intellectually curious (to an extreme level). Can learn and (un)learn any topic (enough to be dangerous) in a matter of hours. Learns on their own as well as from others by asking questions.
Connects the Dots. Can bring in new perspectives and ideas from other disciplines, industries, etc.
Practices empathy. Can imagine the world from different perspective. Those of colleagues, customers, users, etc. Takes time to listen and understand before presenting their own ideas.
Leads by influence and collaboration. Can earn the respect of the specialists, influence new ways of thinking and an open mindset towards new ideas.
Constantly challenges the status quo and encourages new ways of doing things
Different companies will find different paths to solve their wicked problems, but every company will need to consider the new capabilities they require to solve them. By harnessing the full potential and experience from the functional organizations, and designing solutions we will continue to see the rise of Generalists (whether its called that or not), driving profound change in modern organizations.
7 thoughts on “New Problems, New Approaches: The Rise of the Generalist”
I would argue that kids do talk about being a generalist, just not in those terms. Many children say instead, “I want to be a fireman… And a weatherman… And a pilot”. I know I was one of those kids and continued that line of thought into adulthood. I still want to have multiple careers.
Excellent article! Thank you