Generalists Are Hardwired for Reinvention


My last post on the challenges Generalists face in a society that rewards specialists got a lot of attention from people who are Generalists themselves (from healthcare); not from Specialists.

One of them is Dr. Jonathan Griffiths who spoke at a TEDx about how healthcare needs to embrace Generalists:

Dr. Griffiths is correct, Generalists are specialists in generalism…

We are all Generalists (at least we started that way)

Yes we are, we all have it in us. But we become Specialists because curiosity is beaten out of us as we get older; society rewards specialization and most people will not risk their livelihoods by doing their job in a different and better way. It’s easier to keep your head down, follow the rules and keep at it than to propose a new approach.

Today more than at any moment in time, organizations want innovation; but reject creativity. Think about that. The funny thing is the only type of innovation that comes from specialization is incremental, and that has an expiration date. The longer you improve the same thing, the fewer improvements you make. It’s why all organizational failure is self-inflicted: a failure of imagination that results from the curse of knowledge.

It takes a Generalist or jack of all trades to make connections across disciplines and stimulate creativity; the type that is disruptive and game-changing.

Reinvention is a life skill

Today there is a lot of uncertainty in the world, and experts are just as dumbfounded as everyone else as to what is going to happen. All we know is people like the certainty and comfort of having a routine to follow.

I believe the idea of “career” needs to be reframed from one that aims to rise up the ladder, which values experience and expertise, to one that moves sideways; which values multi-disciplinary expertise. The point is to value people for their potential for reinvention; not stagnation.

Experienced people, like established business, suck at reinvention. As I said above, it’s self-inflicted.

Here’s why?

The reason organizations don’t know what to do with Generalists is they don’t want their beliefs challenged. Organizations, if they have the guts, only think about reinvention until they are forced to by a crisis that threatens their livelihoods; just like people.

Expertise and group-think are the enemies of innovation. Experts don’t know what they don’t know they don’t know. And as you move towards the unknown, questions become more important than answers. It’s why Generalists are hardwired for reinvention: we value questions over answers.

Remember, innovation needs better questions to get better answers. Questioning is something Generalists do out of sheer curiosity, one that is restless. It’s this characteristic that gives Generalists a higher potential for reinvention.

What is reinvention?

Reinvention means being in a constant state of becoming; never settling for a state of being. Instead, you are always creating yourself.

Unlearning is just as important learning

You live in a box you’ve carefully constructed to protect yourself, same goes for organizations. Every organization, and person, that has accumulated a wealth of knowledge and experience is exploiting a business model born out of a set of assumptions. At some point, these assumption will become irrelevant.

You are in a race to extinction by only exploiting what you know.

The question is: will you find the revolution before it finds you?

The real challenge of leadership is changing before you have to. Anchoring that challenge are hard built habits, which usually come into question during a crisis. The biggest challenges for people and companies trying to reinvent themselves come from an inability to imagine a different way of doing things. It’s the Curse of Knowledge, or as Bill Taylor says, “what you know limits what you can imagine.”

We need better learners; people who are learning animals. But creating a “learning organization” is only half the solution. Just as important is creating an “unlearning” organization.

Unlearning is not about forgetting. It’s about the ability to choose an alternative mental model or perspective. Unlearning is really about “learning over” to be a newbie.

It’s hard. Eliminating all those habits you developed will give you a headache, luckily there’s a quick way to shift your perspective to see anew: a Vuja De attitude.

Again Bill Taylor:

We all know déjà vu–looking at an unfamiliar situation and feeling like you’ve been there before. But what’s valuable to innovation is vuja dé–looking at a familiar situation with fresh eyes, as if you’ve never seen it before, and with those fresh eyes developing a new line of sight into the future.

How do you do that? Never stop questioning.

Generalists AND Specialists

I’m not arguing that Generalists are better than Specialists. Each one plays their part in the story. The point is we need both operating at the same time; this is the main innovation challenge inside established organizations: Learning new skills isn’t enough to stay ahead. You must also unlearn old ones. Doing so means learning new stuff + unlearning the old at the same time.

Leaders must embrace weirdness, accept that we don’t really know what’s going to happen and that the people best equipped to figuring it out are Generalists; those who are not tied down by the weight of old ideas.