Eclectic Curiosity

What Specifically Do Generalists Do?

Posted on February 4th, 2008, by Steve Hardy in Archives, Interviews, Perspectives. 3 comments

Creative Generalists are changing our world of ideas in a very big way.

Almost six years ago I humbly planted a stake in the ground and began this weblog, Creative Generalist. The blog was and continues to be about generalism and generalists, those so-called dabbling dilettantes of knowledge; those curious of everything, but experts at nothing. I myself am a proud Creative Generalist and through my blog I’ve discovered that there are many, many others like me who share the same wide-ranging tendencies and healthy skepticism of unchecked or misguided specialization.

Nothing can substitute for depth of analysis, and there’s proven value in specialization – it’s what education, career paths, scientific research, and technological innovation are built on – but generalism is a secret talent. With so much complex information, fragmented in so many ways and developing faster and faster, it is increasingly important to have generalists around to make sense of it all, of the big picture. People who appreciate diversity, who are in the know about the wider world and who understand how things interact are invaluable observers, matchmakers, and pioneers of the intersectional ideas so vital for success in today’s knowledge economy, conceptual age, and global community.

But what exactly do generalists do? That’s the question most often asked of me and it’s not an easy one to answer. By definition, generalists tend not to focus (actually, they do focus but just not to the extent that specialists do), they don’t often travel in groups (lacking common associations, designations, and unions), and their shape-shifting versatility changes them frequently. But they are definable and there most certainly are essential traits and skills inherent to them.

I’ve identified five core areas at which Creative Generalists excel. They are:
Wander & Wonder – finding possibility
Synthesize & Summarize – presenting information
Link & Leap – generating ideas
Mix & Match – connecting people
Experience & Empathize – understanding worldview

Any industry or organization can benefit – indeed, thrive – by adding generalists to the mix. Based on my experience, observations, interviews, and random notes, here’s how.

Wander & Wonder
Entertain curiosity and ask unasked questions.

Where to start? What is the big picture? This is the beginning point for all creative scenarios. And to see the big picture one first has to understand a lot of different variables – most of which we are not well versed in and may very well not be aware of at all. Generalists are important at observing everything and seeking out a particular something that is most relevant for specialists to pursue. A generalist is a divergent thinker who is in touch with a large realm of possibilities.

At the heart of this, the creative process is inextricably linked to a fairly soft notion called inspiration. Inspiration is highly personal, extremely contextual, and sometimes completely vague in any rational sense. And yet it is the pillar for any true specialized innovation. Inspiration is the seed from which ideas grow and creativity blossoms.

So perhaps it is fitting to say then that inspiration comes from everything. But we have no exact way of pinpointing what part of everything it derives from, and so open, freethinking is essential for its emergence. It could even come from the interplay of everything with everything else, in which case inspiration is most at home in highly communicative, collaborative and social environments.

This is a fairly straightforward point. Ideas follow inspiration, which comes freely at a friendly intersection of diverse multidisciplinary, multi-industry, multicultural thinking – exactly the kind of thinking that our focused lives tend not to have enough of.

One field that has more than its fair share of eclectic minds is marketing communications. Some of the brightest, most culturally aware, integrative thinkers are those who figure out how best to communicate ideas to others. That said, they also inhabit an industry undergoing extraordinary change – a Chaos Scenario, as Advertising Age columnist Bob Garfield puts it – due in no small part to the media fragmentation caused by specialized innovation.

“A significant issue that arises for agencies as media choices multiply,” says Alan Wiggan, communications consultant and retired founder of Hayhurst Communications, “is the need to integrate their client’s messages across a fragmented media landscape; to be advertising generalists, simultaneously building the brand to a mass audience and selling very specific benefits to micro fragments. This in turn means having an incredibly diverse talent pool to draw on – and that requires a change to the traditional structure of agencies. It is not financially feasible to employ all these folks full-time so the agency will likely, more and more, only be made up of the strategic thinkers and project creative directors … big picture people with the ability to identify and manage highly skilled freelancers.”

Generalism comes in especially useful at the early campaign planning stages that form the foundation on which highly talented (and increasingly outsourced) designers, writers, photographers, directors and technicians later apply their refined skills. It’s generalists who plant the conceptual seeds and it’s often not only the quality but also the breadth of their upfront thinking that determines the ultimate success of a campaign.

Uber Account Planner Russell Davies, formerly of wieden + kennedy and Nike, puts it this way: “Advertising creativity is not an especially pure form. It’s mostly about the collision of ideas, trying to create something new and attention grabbing. So we need to be interested in a wide range of ideas. And advertising isn’t big enough to support the specialists that you might suspect we’d employ if we were the efficient manipulation machines of popular myth. We don’t have staff anthropologists, ethnographers, econometricians, statisticians, semioticians, propagandists, MBAs, blah blah blah. So we end up doing a little bit of everything. And any planner who’s any good, I suspect, is interested in a little bit of everything.”

The chief reason why ideation is now so important is that it starts at the beginning; in the truest sense of exploration. The main argument as to why generalists can offer such valuable assistance with this is that they can hunt down and recognize more different possibilities than can specialists. Generalism is not simply a nice-to-have; it’s essential that someone focus on everything.

Curiosity is a wonderful thing. It cannot be overstated how important the simple act of asking a naïve question can be. It triggers the consideration of something altogether new. It deposits some speck of impurity into the mix. It opens up avenues that lead to new intersections. But it is only a receptive mind that is able to answer a naïve question. You have to be open to the unexpected, so that, if you wander upon a discovery, you’ll recognize it and act upon it.

Synthesize & Summarize
Connect the dots and present complex information succinctly.

“I force specialists to speak in terms that I, a generalist, can understand,” says Susan August, a Requirements Storyteller and Technical Analyst at InnoPath Software in Silicon Valley. “This encourages them to be clear, and to articulate their domain knowledge from a different perspective. These are healthy behaviors! I then take what I’ve heard and generalize it one step further, so that any team member can return to the conversation later to understand what was discussed and what was decided. It’s my job to collapse the Tower of Babble that specialists construct around themselves; it’s my job to help the team agree upon and use a common language.”

The role that August plays is critical, not just among technologists but also with academics, lawyers, scientists, technicians, doctors, and the mechanic at your local auto garage. Experts know stuff that you don’t and they use language to explain it that you probably don’t understand. It’s a problem.

“At last count there were more than twenty thousand different disciplines, each of them staffed by researchers straining to replace what they produced yesterday,” quips John Burke, host of the long-running TV program Connections and catalyst of an admirably ambitious educational tool called The Knowledge Web. “These noodling world-changers are spurred on by at least two powerful motivators. The first is that you are more than likely to achieve recognition if you make your particular research niche so specialist that there’s only room in it for you. So the aim of most scientists is to know more and more about less and less, and to describe what it is they know in terms of such precision as to be virtually incomprehensible to their colleagues, let alone the general public.” This presents an obvious informational roadblock which curtails valuable learning that both the expert and non-expert could profit from. If everybody is an expert in something, we must find better ways of translating and sharing what it is everybody knows.

Diversity fuels further diversity. Niches lead to generalities to niches to generalities. “Development is differentiation emerging from generality,” wrote Jane Jacobs in her book The Nature of Economies. “[T]he process is open-ended and it produces increasing diversity and increasingly various, numerous, and intricate co-development relationships.” Such an expansion is exponential and an ever-widening gap emerges between companies that can advantageously make sense of fragments and those that cannot. In other words, further potentially lucrative niches come only to those that synthesize the niche’s roots. The hidden treasure then is discovering or rediscovering “obsolete generalities”, as Jacobs described them, because “even the most obscure and frivolous are potentially economically fertile, provided that somebody who needs them can find them.” Innovation is greatly accelerated by inspiration because it offers us the opportunity to better assess what has already been done, where else it can be applied, and how we should direct our formidable focus.

Jacobs argued that that economic expansion relies on capturing, using and then re-using transient energy. The more successful systems are particularly adept at recycling this energy before it is discharged because they have more diverse ways of identifying it, taking it apart, recombining it, passing it around, and recycling it. This rich, diverse environment in turn grows even larger from within because of its excellent self-refueling capabilities. So, for example, a lush rainforest is a much more robust ecosystem than a semi-barren desert because of how well it processes energy received from the sun. In the forest it is absorbed and traded around within itself while in a desert much of the inbound energy bounces right back out. Likewise, economically diverse cities (like New York) tend to grow much better than single-export cities (like Detroit) because of their comparatively stronger internal dynamics. Her overall point is that imports, and particularly how well they are “stretched” (by generalists), are much more significant than exports (as many economists would argue). Information is economic sunshine. Do you capture it and trade it around or do you let it bounce away?

Diversity generates economic expansion. We have an environment teeming with differentiations and obscure inspirations by way of hyperinnovation, culture blur, and enhanced communications. Organizations have more points of inspiration, not only as a result of their own activities but also of others’ from every industry all over the world. All of these inspirations simply need to be harvested and formulated into generalities that can then lead to further developments. Simply put, organizations receptive to these by way of a generalist approach that merges disparate fragments win.

Link & Leap
Take a simple insight and find a transcending application.

Perhaps the most obvious of generalist characteristics is the connect-the-dots serendipity-searching that comes from linking disparate subjects together. Such cross-disciplinary and cross-cultural knitting is core to moving from incremental innovation to transcending ideation. Generalists leverage the existing wealth of specialist insight and initiative to find ideas that remarkably overcome intellectual dead-ends, open up whole new avenues of opportunity, and even devastatingly leapfrog competitors.

In his groundbreaking book The Medici Effect, Frans Johansson offers dozens of examples of how ideas mixed, crossed, blended, collided with, or seduced by other completely different and seemingly irrelevant ideas are producing some of our time’s best dishes, strongest materials, timeliest medical discoveries, liveliest cities, and most interesting music. He notes that “… the movement of people, the convergence of science, and the leap of computation are giving rise to more intersections than ever [and] the individuals or teams who find these intersections are likely to be the ones who radically change our world.” Exactly the domain of generalists.

“People everywhere are aware that the world is changing incredibly fast – and they wish to know what that means for them, their organizations and their constituencies. Many understand that the solution might not be to do the exact same thing one did in the past – only faster, bigger and better. So they look for solutions in unconventional places – searching for unique connections. There is no doubt that most leaders I have met understand the need for this. Now, that said, there is a world of difference between understanding such a thing intellectually and actually acting on it. This last part – actually pursuing intersectional thinking, actually making changes by introducing quite different perspectives is not something most leaders relish. It is tough and could, with the wrong approach, be fraught with risk. So one avoids it.”

Great leaders excel at grasping the broader context of situations. Real leadership, encompassing multiple complex issues and a variety of differing perspectives, necessitates a true generalist mindset. This applies at the corporate and non-profit level but it applies especially in the political realm. Most important of all, effective leaders today understand that we’re no longer operating in a linear cause-and-effect world but rather in more of a web-like ecosystem where inter-relationships shape direction, decisions, and delegation.

Perhaps this is the reason why many ecologists tend to be generalists? It’s a field of study that focuses on the global worldview and necessitates an understanding that things simply do not happen in isolation of other things. As Peter Senge championed in his classic on systems thinking The Fifth Discipline, it’s all connected. And ignoring this – and especially working against it – is what gets us into trouble.

Explains David Suzuki, geneticist, environmentalist, and host of CBC’s The Nature of Things: “Today, most of us live in a shattered world. A world of disconnected bits and pieces, so it is no longer easy to recognize our place. And when we can’t see the connections, we fail to recognize causal relationships and therefore feel no responsibility.”

“Scientists focus on a part of nature, separate that part, control everything impinging on it and measure everything within it, thereby acquiring insights into that part of nature. But in the process of focusing, we lose sight of the context – the rhythms, patterns and cycles – within which that fragment exists and functions. So we fragment the whole into isolated bits and pieces. No one wants to stop progress, but when it is so narrowly defined, we never ask ‘How much is enough?’, ‘Why do we need all this?’ or ‘What is an economy for?’”

Ironically, the lessons learned from biodiversity may help us to restore it. Environmental challenges confronting us today demand a much better understanding of systems. From hurricanes like Katrina to the conservation of endangered species, figuring out how to coordinate disparate resources, forge cooperative efforts, and imagine solutions to complex problems will require especially broad thinking. Unfortunately, there’s a drawback for those who do: the big picture burden; that as you understand more the true scope of problems and the colossal collective effort needed to solve them, you realize just how negligent we are of inter-relationships and the long view. As individuals, as communities, as nations, are we doing enough to effect enough positive change?

Mix & Match
Make worlds collide and harness collaborative energies.

As important as possibility, information, and ideas are, they are all for naught without real people working together to discover and explore such new territory. And where would such introduction and cooperation be without the agent, the broker, the networker, and the matchmaker? This, perhaps the most human and age-old aspect of generalism, is paradoxically also the part that’s been so successfully expanded by new technology – particularly online applications. InnoCentive, TopCoder, and Goldcorp are to scientists, programmers, and geologists, respectively, what Facebook, Lavalife, and Wikipedia are to friends, daters, and recreational historians and biographers: vast pools of people and projects from which to filter and find the most relevant and useful.

Specialists are inevitably and relentlessly becoming even more specialized. So too are projects and the unique set of requirements each entail. The supplier market has fractured repeatedly, making it difficult to keep track of what is available and by whom. This has happened in many different fields. Science has moved from being a handful of scientific disciplines – physics, biology, chemistry – to being broken down into hundreds of specialist components. Postgraduates don’t study biology anymore; they study distinct branches of biology. In media, television has gone from consisting of a few large networks to a selection of cable stations to a thousand channel universe comprised of highly specialized niche channels. And outsourcing and offshoring have only drilled home the point even more.

The amazing amount and variety of specialization in the world necessitates generalization to make sense of it all. There remains a vital role for the general practitioner. In medicine, an area also experiencing increased rapid fragmentation, for example, there is a valuable service to keeping people from visiting a urologist or a foot surgeon to diagnose such maladies as an earache or a heart attack. As anybody at Google or Craigslist can attest, scouts and matchmakers positioned at the gateway to a standard that legitimates a specialty will have as much or more to gain as the specialists themselves.

The successful and productive mixing and matching of people will always require a human touch, design. As incredibly useful as social networking tools are, they are limited because they are used voluntarily and by the self-aware. There are many instances where organizations are not, in their processes, motivated to function horizontally or outside of their traditional bounds, and there are many talented individuals locked in the tunnel vision of their pursuits, blindly unaware that collaboration could be the best move they make.

As an example of the former, consider the invaluable role that someone like Dr. Terry Rock plays in the development and quality of life of North America’s fastest-growing city. Rock is CEO of the Calgary Arts Development Association where he is responsible for putting in place the strategic foundation, political stewardship, and pure enthusiasm that the city’s arts scene needs to thrive. A major part of this job is the shepherding of numerous and vastly different constituencies, including politicians, bureaucrats, artists, businesspeople, and the public towards an ultimate goal. “For whatever reason, I can vividly see long chains of action and have an idea of what needs to happen to get from point A to point Z. I’m sure this capacity comes from the experience base I’ve built up combined with my doctoral work in Strategy, Entrepreneurship & Innovation. In the worlds I span, I bring the ability to see opportunities that come from making connections that others don’t notice. Maybe I was born to be a spanner?”

Finding specialists and spanning specialties are two useful HR roles of generalists. A third is linking ideative and imaginative thinkers with creative and innovative doers, and striking the best balance among them all in an organization. Not art. Not science. It’s design – and it’s not easy.

Steve Rechtschaffner understands this. As the former Chief Creative Officer of video games titan Electronic Arts, he identified role and skill balance as a core aspect of successful product design. “Software engineers often approach the world differently than an artist might. Even a conceptual artist might approach the world differently than an executionally oriented artist would. Different points of view need to be involved at different times within a project otherwise the level of discomfort can be stifling. Having a typical software engineer involved when a concept is at its loosest is not usually a good idea. By nature and by training, a good engineer is usually looking to answer all the open questions as quickly as possible. While often, a good conceptual artist or designer is looking around trying to find other ways of approaching an opportunity, even if they already have a plausible solution.” Generalists play the often overlooked yet essential role of identifying specialists’ strengths and directing project activities and timing in such a way that makes the most effective use of them.

Experience & Empathize
Understand humanity and life’s many interrelationships.

We can tip-toe forward inch-by-inch with our head down in steadfast concentration and call it movement, but we cannot call it progress until we lift our head, run our eyes across the horizon and understand not only where we stand but also where we are going and why. To do this requires insight, which is often gained by walking a mile in someone else’s shoes and looking at things from another vantage point.

Ideation feeds on lateral thinking and free association. And the farther one can look the more there is to learn and connect. In this sense, crossing cultural borders – replete with unique languages, customs, traditions, politics, religions, senses (sights, sounds, smells, tastes), technologies, and philosophies – is the most expansive lateral thinking that can be done. Developing a deeper understanding of how other cultures solve problems is a huge leadership asset – notice the trend in the hiring of foreign-born CEOs – and competitive advantage in business. (Not to mention it also happens to be personally enriching and is downright essential if we are to combat worldwide issues such as climate change, terrorism, and poverty.)

Travel is of course the best way to glean new ideas derived from other worldviews. And contrary to what you might think, a huge expedition is not necessary. Sometimes the most useful learnings come simply from getting out in your surroundings, engaging with people and, most importantly, listening and observing. Removing the impersonal level of abstraction that accounting spreadsheets, polling data, and one’s own pre-conceptions and expectations reveal insights valuable enough to solve problems, seed businesses, and spawn careers.

As far as mind-expanding pursuits go, travel is right up there with learning a new language. And while relaxing on the beach can make a pleasant vacation, the real fun is in exploring new worlds, discovering the real inner workings of different societies, and learning about foreign cultures. Says Canadian Dan Fraser, co-founder of a unique Bangkok-based cultural adventure company called Smiling Albino, “We want people to approach travel more the way they approach a scientific research project. We want people to think about travel the way they would about the Olympics, or playing in a film, or learning an instrument. It isn’t necessarily just the excursion – it’s the idea behind it.” Just like the fascinating juxtapositions of Thailand – majestic temples next to crazy nightclubs, urban chaos surrounded by peaceful countryside, traditional Eastern values mingling with modern Western commercialism. Fraser adds, “The pollination of different experiences from high adventure to an emotional giving of oneself creates a very stimulating and cerebral experience.” Experiential adventures foster empathy and facilitate discovery.

A company closer to home that’s built an impressive reputation leveraging observed insight into useful applications and solutions is IDEO, the Palo Alto based industrial design firm. Drawing on the “thoughtless acts” philosophy of its Chief Creative Officer Jane Fulton Suri, IDEO’s human factors team goes out of their way to observe, decipher, explain, and re-engineer various everyday human experiences – from navigating a new airline check-in system to conducting a medical procedure. Such a social and environmental undertaking involves a keen awareness of context, complex systems, and inter-relationships.

“All the elements that make up experiences are very complex when viewed objectively,” says Suri. “But since experience is subjective, it is wonderfully refreshing and most useful to look at that kind of complexity through a human subjective lens and ask simply “what does the experience feel like from this perspective?”. Literally seeking to understand the experience, the journey through time and space, for someone else. That perspective automatically integrates all the contributing elements into a whole and helps you appreciate the interdependencies in a way that doing only objective analysis wouldn’t.”

Embracing a human-centered observational and empathic approach tunes into multiple perspectives, various worldviews. And this is both inspiring and empowering, not simply because of the exposure and the reality check but because, again, it taps into the intersectional riches of diversity.

For the seasoned expert, overconfidence in proven techniques fosters a mindset averse to new ideas. “If managers ‘believe’ their worldviews are facts rather than sets of assumptions,” Senge once remarked, “they will not be open to challenging these worldviews. If they lack skills in inquiring into theirs and others’ ways of thinking, they will be limited in experimenting collaboratively with new ways of thinking.” An open mind is essential, of course, but so too is a dose of intelligent naïveté; something, among many valuable things, that Creative Generalists bring to the table.

3 responses to “What Specifically Do Generalists Do?”

  1. […] The blog was and continues to be about generalism and generalists, those so-called dabbling dilettan… […]

  2. […] Link & Leap – generating […]

  3. […] • Wander & Wonder (Overview) – finding possibility […]

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