A friend of mine always says: I’m not an expert on anything in particular, but I know a little about many things. Being a generalist used to be a challenge, in a world that asked for precise knowledge and specialization. But not anymore.
Today, there are generalist profiles succeeding in a game that, in the words of Simon Sinek, is infinite.
When we know the rules and the game is not changing with time, hyper-specialized people ace. They know exactly what to do and how to do it, and can develop some known practices to solve problems. As David Snowden pointed out, working in the ordered world allows us to efficient processes and ways of working, finding good practices that can be learned.
The ugly truth is that the world is not a well-known game with non-changing rules, and unexpected situations pop up here and there. We never really know what could happen. It calls for adaptation and flexibility.
If the world is then a complex environment with ever-changing rules and different actors going back and forth, we should be asking for people able to develop a more conceptual reasoning, able to connect unrelated concepts coming from different contexts. There’s no background knowledge or experience to which we can relate to solve this new kind of problems.
If knowledge doesn’t provide us with the responses we need, it’s time to focus on developing new skills that actually can. Maybe it’s time to reframe the problem, so we can find a different answer. A here is where a generalist could ace.
As Russell Ackoff puts it, we “are not confronted with problems that are independent of each other, but with dynamic situations that consist of complex systems of changing problems that interact with each other”.
For our knowledge to be useful, we need to change the way we apply and try to find new structures. According to David Epstein, in his book Range, “successful problem-solvers are more able to determine the deep structure of a problem before they proceed to match a strategy to it”. Once we can relate to a known structure, the knowledge we have can be applied with a different outcome.
Lateral thinking can’t be automatized
The appliance of information in new contexts to find new uses for old ideas is called lateral thinking. Therefore, the more knowledge you have about different things, the easier to find other patterns and coming up with ideas that aren’t so straightforward.
Therefore, in a context where new problems aren’t like to be restricted to a single field, the ones able to transfer concepts from one domain to another and find new approaches will thrive. And these will be the generalists.