Being a technical specialist is only useful until it is not! So why is specialist thinking so prevalent; and why has it seemingly become overvalued? Our universities and corporations have created the culture of the ‘expert’ over the last 3-4 decades. At the same time our global economy is getting more complex, noisy and uncertain. Research undertaken over recent years is providing robust data which suggests generalists are better at navigating uncertainty, are more risk tolerant and demonstrate greater levels of adaptability than specialists.
So why has the generalist become so ‘unsexy’? Possibly it is the negative connotations around the generalist – ‘jack of all trades, master of none’. Certainly the much more positive term polymath (from the Greek ‘having learned much’) has been dropped from our vocabulary. When we do talk about polymaths the examples we use are often Leonardo da Vinci, Galileo, Francis Bacon, Goethe and Isaac Newton. An article for Intelligent Life Magazine, arguing that in the age of specialisation, the polymath has become an endangered species triggered an experiment by magazines’ staff. They decided to make a list of 20 living polymaths, which included individuals such as Noam Chomsky, Nathan Myhrvold and Clive James. What was telling more than anything else was that the average age of the 20 listed was 68. You couldn’t make a stronger case for the need to reverse the trend.
In order to facilitate this process it is important that companies become more comfortable in measuring management abilities beyond technical competencies and short-term financial results. Our technical skills form the basis of our career and most of us start out becoming experts in a particular field. As we strive to advance in the management hierarchy, we need to develop breadth, not depth, for role effectiveness at the senior level. This means going from a narrow focus on one area to a whole of business approach. By developing a commercial mindset we lay the foundation for becoming intuitive about where our industry and the market are going. We learn to present ideas in the form of business cases and start to take the needs of the whole business or value chain into account when thinking about decisions or changes we want to make.
In the area of business and management skills in the first instance we all have to learn to manage ourselves (and not avoid our areas of weakness). This includes learning to prioritise, manage risk and getting tasks done. With the transition to management we gain increasing autonomy and decision making authority. The focus shifts from ourselves to creating and managing the systems and processes that make our teams and later the whole organisation successful. This requires developing rigour, perspective and self-discipline. Only after having learned to be rigorous can we progress to becoming adaptable; and deal with complexity. Based on our experiences in being rigorous and learning from mistakes, our decision making becomes more fluid and less reliant on procedures, precedents and guidelines.
It should be quite clear now that the evolution from specialist technical knowledge to a broad, sound generalist management skillset requires a lot of investment. While some are able to acquire those skills through self-guided learning and experimentation, the process works much better facilitated through a combination of training, mentoring and coaching. The key responsibility here lies with the talent management programs which have sprung up in many organisations in recent years. Otherwise we are going to see another generation of senior executives who work in silos and fail to collaborate for the benefit of the whole business and value chain.