Eclectic Curiosity

Posted on September 23rd, 2003, by Steve Hardy in Archives, Uncategorized. No Comments

To follow-up on Sunday’s post about colonizing and consolidating:

Creative problems require a whole different skill set than do linear problems. This is often overlooked when seeking people or teams to solve these problems. Artists work differently than engineers (although there can be much overlap in their respective techniques). However, business problems are usually approached by the more conventional and rational approach, likely because this is how the client organizations themselves approach their work. When asked in an interview why he thought corporate executives thought differently than designers, Tom Peters answered, “Because we are literalists. We’re trained as engineers. We have MBAs. Because we still believe that business is a reductionist activity, rather than a holistic activity.” The last thing idea projects need is to be reduced. The first thing they need is to be expanded.

At the centre of this disparity in problem solving approaches is the fundamental difference between generalists and specialists. Specialists work with convergent problems and generalists prefer divergent problems. One of my favorite thinkers, Peter Senge, offers the best definition and distinction between the two in his book The Fifth Discipline:

Convergent problems have a solution: “the more intelligently you study them, the more the answers converge.” Divergent problems have no “correct” solution. The more they are studied by people with knowledge and intelligence the more they “come up with answers which contradict one another.” The difficulty lies not with the experts, but in the nature of the problem itself. (“It is important to note that divergent problems are not convergent problems that have not yet been solved. Rather, they are problems for which there is no single, best solution.”)

Inherent to both approaches is that there are two ingredients: information and knowledge (technically, the first is the ingredients and the second is the outcome). Both a generalist and a specialist work with somehow making information into knowledge. A generalist approaches this process as someone holistically considering a broad range of information, synthesizing it and directing it to where it would be most relevant and useful. A specialist approaches this process as someone analytically considering a deep range of information, refining it and applying it to a particular scenario.

It all comes down to problems and solutions. The unique ways of dealing with these two things really is the core difference between generalism and specialism – particularly in creative business.

Generalists are usually better at helping to define the problem while specialists tend to frame the problem to fit their solutions. Generalists are better equipped to adapt their practice to a project’s requirements whereas specialists tend to be more inclined to ply their trade the way they see it. A solution looking for a problem versus a problem looking for solutions. Intelligently scattered versus diligently deep. Leaping versus digging.

Both generalists and specialists work with ideas, although the nature of the ideas that they are best at working with are quite different. “The goal of a generalist is to solve the problem at hand, to engineer a fitting solution,” writes Fred Nichols. “The goal of the specialist is to find problems that fit the solutions at hand. (This is a fine distinction being drawn here but it is an exceedingly important one.)”

Specialists work mostly with incremental ideas. Their work is gradual, methodical and focused on furthering a particular project by solving it or improving it – or only an aspect of it – in numerous small frequently pre-determined steps. Specialists are determined creators and ingenious innovators.

It is in specialized fields that we have made the most progress of late, and it has been technology that has accelerated this progress by providing new tools to work on specific projects faster and more efficiently. The Human Genome Project, for example, is on a narrow point of study that would not be where it is at today without the assistance of advanced computers. And because of this, a plethora of non-genetic issues have also arisen and must be considered from even more perspectives.

Generalists, on the other hand, work mainly with transcending ideas. Their work is also somewhat gradual but more random, furthering a particular project by defining a problem and exploring the best ways that it could conceivably be solved. The problems normally handled by generalists are large in scale and complex in that the absence of apparent direction and solid parameters present a high degree of ambiguity to manage. A good novelist, for example, is someone who is able to build a single, coherent story by piecing together the insightful anecdotes, the unusual (or usual) characters, and the vivid settings we have strewn throughout our lives and in our imaginations.

As with all things, perhaps it is best to have a balance; someone who is well versed in an area but also active in learning about things outside of that area. This is the ideal and some people do this admirably. I say admirably because it is like swimming against the current. With so much information – both broad and deep – few are able to maintain both with equal intensity, especially if something as vital as career has little acceptance of one’s interests and hobbies outside of what one is being paid to do.


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