New Problems, New Approaches: The Rise of the Generalist

New Problems, New Approaches:  The Rise of the GeneralistAlmost 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.

generalistThis 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.

image credit: firmerground.com

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    Reuven Gorsht is Vice President, Customer Strategy at SAP where he leads the company’s Global Go-to Market Initiatives. His leadership in operations and strategy in the technology and professional services industries, is the result of skillful project management and business transformations. He speaks at industry conferences and has been regularly quoted in Forbes and BusinessWeek.

This entry was posted in Creativity, Culture & Values, Design, Growth, Innovation, Leadership, Management, People & Skills, collaboration and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to New Problems, New Approaches: The Rise of the Generalist

  1. Alexandre Lima says:

    I don’t know if I agree with this statement. Imagine if you must have a heart surgery. The hospital brings two great clinical doctors who have experience treating small problems of the heart, stomach, throat, orthopedics, etc. They say you don’t need a cardiologist ’cause these two individuals will do a great job discussing your condition and seeing your problem through a new point of view.

    What would you think about the hospital? About the professionals? Would you let them go ahead and make the heart surgery? In practice, this can be very dangerous sometimes, specially ‘cos it might create a generation of professionals who think that be only a generalist is good, so they will never have a critical evaluation of their work ‘cos they don’t have the ability to do so (I mean, these doctors can make a great job, but they could miss something important that might affect the surgery results as a whole).

    • Reuven Gorsht says:

      Hi Alexandre,

      You make a good point. By no means was I insinuating that specialization is not important. There is certainly a need for specialists that can go deep on a given topic, however, today’s problems (whether in healthcare or business), are becoming more complex and we are missing a ‘glue’ between specializations to be able to zoom out and see the bigger picture.
      Even in the field of medicine, there are many stories and examples of how medical issues and symptoms are interconnected and thus a specialist can sometimes miss signals that are outside their specialization. Nonetheless, there is (and always will be) a need for both specialists and generalists in our changing environment.

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  3. Arnold Beekes says:

    Totally agree, Reuven. I am very happy that you are helping to stress the need for generalists! Have you seen my article about the same http://permamarks.org/world-needs-generalists/)?

  4. I have made a living and a life by my unlikely conbinations. The non – generalist in me was caught off guard by your article at first. But I have played the innovative game my whole life and would love to share (…and pass on) my experience before I am gone.
    The business world wants to unravel the “…innovative sequence” because they hope it to be a formula like the scientific method of problem solving. But I have relied more on what I think is the “art of innovating.
    I am a huge fan of “incubating” results as you we I’ll discover. Love to connect…

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  6. Reuven,

    This delighted me to no end as I read it. You just preached to a choir of one. I get to work in an inherently cross-functional role (Quality Improvement) and I wholeheartedly believe that in general, if people think in terms of adding value to internal and external customers via value streams (the generalist approach), rather than achieving numbers within their silo (the specialist approach), it makes for better business. It needs to be grounded in leadership, though. Is management encouraging their employees by setting value-stream-style metrics or are they setting specialist metrics only? Need to have a balance of both.

    To Alexandre’s point above, there are certain tasks that require specialization…like a heart surgery, or other highly complex TASKS…what we quality people refer to as “in the weeds”; meaning it’s super ground level and designed for a specialist to do. I think what you’re talking about in your article is a breed of people who aspire to rise above the weeds to the 10,000 foot view, and see the entire eco-system. There may be weeds, which could upset a garden, but there are even bigger problems (like herbicides getting into the groundwater) that take a generalist to be able to see.

    • Reuven Gorsht says:

      Thanks so much Brent.

      The challenge partly lies in the way that we develop talent. Typically individuals grow in seniority within a specialization, measured on their level of expertise and contributions within their area of responsibility. It is only while at a more senior or executive level when specializations start to diverge and we create “General Managers”. This can typically close a gap in management, but leaves capability gaps within the individual contributor population.

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  10. Julie says:

    I was just having a conversation with an Army General about this yesterday. He said the military trains you to be generalists. But when he came back to working in civilian life he found the opposite to be true, like you said. In the entertainment industry it’s always been a bad idea to have too many “slashes” –
    ex. actor/writer/director/producer/lawyer.

    Glad you brought up the topic and the importance of being a generalist.

  11. Ben Verberck says:

    The new generalist is by default a superb business analysis and that also senses, challenges the knowledge of the ‘specialists’ helping him or her to build the vision, needs and features set, … This person posseses notions of EVERYTHING what could be relevant to the case she or he is busy buikding, implenenting and testing.

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  14. Not the specialist has to become a generalist, but that the organization, or group of people, has to become one! Specialist tasks will remain, but specialist organizations lesser so: it’s the post-industrial phenomena that requires root-cause analysis to solve problems, and not symptom elimination… This implies that specialists become generalist in their thinking, not in their doing. This alone will be a paradigm shift in education and the work field, and is way more complex than ‘flip’ the coin form one to another mode – it needs the combination of both!

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