“Go some distance away because then the work appears smaller and more of it can be taken in at a glance and a lack of harmony and proportion is more readily seen.” — Leonardo Da Vinci
“To appreciate nonsense requires a serious interest in life.” — Gelett Burgess
The Specialization of Ideas
Specialization has a firm grasp on all of us. Many things—economically, politically, culturally—are big, complex and fast-moving. The best way to deal with big, complex and fast-moving things is to break them down into smaller, simpler, more manageable parts. Look no further than your favourite video store, music shop or magazine newsstand. Niche interest has taken over—whether we like it or not.
Excerpted from Steve Hardy’s 2005 ChangeThis manifesto The Creative Generalist: How Broad Thinking Leads to Big Ideas.
And for the most part, specialization is a positive thing, because we are, in many cases, charting new and exciting territory. The advancements in new media, for example, have been both remarkable and lightning-fast. Innovation in engineering and science has made new architecture and new medicine possible. Digital tools have permanently altered sound and music capabilities, much like refined computing has shown us DNA and distant galaxies. Most would agree that we are exploring particular subject matters deeper than we ever have before. In fact, many people would argue that specialization is the very definition of progress itself.
But is it?
Ideation, unlike creativity, is not a specialized activity. Ideativity and creativity are not the same thing. Ideas require a divergent, generalist approach (“a wide net”) while creative endeavours require the opposite: a convergent, specialist approach (“a deep drill”). Acts of creativity certainly include ideas and thinking of ideas often involves a large degree of creativity. They reinforce each other. They are integral. However, in society and in business, creativity and ideation are two separate and different-looking cogs. One deals in simplicity while the other deals in complexity. One deals with composition while the other deals with editing.
Ideas are the product of divergent thinking, lateral steps and questions dealing with completely unrelated notions. Seldom pure, and often appearing out of nowhere, ideas come from a kaleidoscopic grab bag of other ideas—whether ancient, recent, calculated or silly. Ideas cannot be limited to the confines of a silo. They need space to run around and occasionally bump into strangers. To do this requires guardians who are generalists.
Ideas cannot be limited to the confines of a silo. They need space to run around and occasionally bump into strangers.
Generalists are very good at introducing strangers to one another. Generalists are keen observers and natural matchmakers. They explore possibilities (in the broadest sense), connect the dots, distill complex information down to relevant summary, and remind us of context and even humanity. For these reasons and others, generalists are in increasingly high demand in today’s companies, non-profit organizations, universities, governments, and institutions.
Despite the growing volume of literature on focused creativity and relentless incremental innovation, there seems to be a very essential point missing. This missing point is that an idea ties loose ends together. Simple enough. An idea is the ring on which finely cut diamonds are placed. Ideas unite creative executions and innovative advancements.
An idea is the ring on which finely cut diamonds are placed. Ideas unite creative executions and innovative advancements.
Ideas are important because they represent an ultra concentration of fragments that in many cases would be regarded as irrelevant or useless on their own. Ideas represent a symphony, unique as a whole yet unattainable without its parts or the dynamic between each of those parts. By and large, teamwork of “whole” and “part” unfortunately tends to be overlooked.
In many ways, from urban design and marketing campaigns to environmental policy and disaster response, we constantly see this played out in real life, with both thoughts and actions being considered only in piecemeal isolation by specialists. Interconnectedness eludes us, especially in our organizations.
We must actively seek out fragments of possibility, information, ideas, expertise and worldview from their many scattered sources and try to put them together sensibly and productively. A generalist understanding of factors once believed too remote to consider is already an essential activity. We will increasingly need to stretch even further to stake out brands, products and strategies that are unique and attractive — to mention nothing of the intrinsic value of comprehending where any of these fit in the bigger picture (e.g. markets, attitudes, influential events, etc.). As such, a generalist, multi-perspective, multi-directional approach offers an optimal and unbiased starting point to both the generation of ideas and the execution (or delivery) of them.
Broad Thinking Leads to Big Ideas
We live in an interconnected world, one in which information and knowledge have become vital to how we work, play, and live. Creativity and imagination are two of the most coveted qualities of modern organizations and active thinkers, alike. So-called “soft” attributes like empathy, context, perspective, inspiration, systems dynamics, and lifelong learning have risen to the level of imperative.
The last couple decades have seen a powerful emergence of ideas and a recognition that one must actively look beyond the status quo, seek new ground, and find the courage to take the inherent risks of delivering a new idea to the world. With this emergence, a movement has grown. It’s been gradual and quiet so far, but this movement is gathering steam and is about ready to explode. We now see more hybrid-topic magazines, more innovation and creativity consultancies, more boundary-less design studios, more universities strongly emphasizing cross-disciplinary study, and even a few more market analysts that study the world as much as the stock ticker. The movement is generalism—open-minded, diversity seeking, intersectional-thinking, holistic generalism. It’s led by a group of people who once thrived in intellectual and craft circles, but who were, until quite recently, becoming an endangered species.
The movement is generalism—open-minded, diversity seeking, intersectional-thinking, holistic generalism.
In his groundbreaking book The Medici Effect, Frans Johansson offers dozens of examples of how ideas that are 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 accurately 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.” This is precisely the domain of generalists.
If breakthrough insights are at the intersection of ideas, concepts and cultures, it will be generalists—those so-called dabblers and experts of nothing—who find them, who connect them with the specialists that need them, who shape organizations in ways that embrace them, and who shepherd into existence the ideas that will indeed change our world for the better.
Nothing substitutes depth of analysis and there’s proven value in the methodical and incremental process of specialization—it’s what education, career paths, scientific research, and technological innovation are built on—but generalism is the hidden talent, the missing link. With so much complex information, that is fragmented in so many ways and developing faster and faster, it is increasingly important to have generalists around to make sense of it all. 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 that are vital to success in today’s global society and knowledge economy.
Inspired, divergent, lateral thinking is the secret factor for organizations and individuals that live and work in the realm of ideas. Generalists hold the key to our increasingly specialized world.
What Specifically Do Generalists Do?
- Wander & Wonder – finding possibility
- Synthesize & Summarize – presenting information
- Link & Leap – generating ideas
- Mix & Match – connecting people
- Experience & Empathize – understanding worldview