4 Challenges Organizations Face To Get The Most From Generalists


New challenges require new approaches. All organizations have new challenges on the table all the time, but most are not equipped to come up with new approaches to conquer them because they can’t think and act differently.

This is a specialization challenge.

As a rule of thumb, your business needs more generalists than specialists if it wants to innovate. Don’t get me wrong, specialists are valuable. But Generalists are the innovators, the ones who are most capable of dealing with complexity; the ones that connect that dots.

Yesterday I joined Innochat to chat about T-Shaped people and culture for collaborative innovation (see transcript). I’ve written quite a lot about Generalists (here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here), so I won’t touch on here the well known factors about being a Generalist, hiring and managing.

Instead, I’ll touch on the challenges…

For context, what is a Generalist?

Also commonly known as T-Shaped, Zero Gravity Thinker, polymaths, “T-shaped” refers to people who are both specialists and generalists. They have a working level of capability in a wide range of areas, and a high level of capability in one (or a small number of) specialist area(s).


As a Generalist, I work and collaborate with both Specialists and Generalists all the time in my dual roles as an entrepreneur and Insultant. Being understood in terms of benefits for innovation is a challenge I’ve encountered while working with established organizations; below are others which block transformation:

Challenge #1: Lack of visionary leadership

Most firms and businesses don’t see value in Generalists for various reasons. One of them is lack of visionary leadership, which is rare in itself. I can tell you from experience it’s a hassle anytime I’ve dealt with non-generalists leaders simply because they associate weird with trouble; they don’t like being challenged.

Traditional leaders surround themselves with “Yes People” who don’t challenge the status quo, keep their heads down and do as they’re told. This is a recipe for stagnation, and it’s all too common on a day to day basis so anything that looks like brilliance and brave will be feared and rejected.

Innovative leaders, on the other hand, understand that if you want breakthroughs, you need to bring together people from a wide range of disciplines, backgrounds, and experiences.

As Peter Thiel says, brilliant thinking is rare but courage is in even shorter supply. Which takes me to my next challenge…

Challenge #2: Intimidation

Us Generalists have a flowing mind that doesn’t settle, have courage in bunches, and the most motivated of us are very driven to excel and conquer new challenges. That formula drives others who like to stick to the status-quo crazy, they feel threatened and intimidated.

Gigi Peterkin agrees:

The threat is real, but the opportunity is just as real and more important. Being uncomfortable is a good sign of progress.

Challenge #3: Not a team player

Another challenge I’ve encountered myself is that because I know and can do much of everything, I’m not seen as a team player. I’m not the only one:

Most of society worships the individual, but innovation is a team sport. Contrary to popular belief Steve Jobs didn’t invent the iPhone; but he was a catalyst in creating the conditions for the iPhone to be born. That’s being a team player, and it’s how innovation happens inside large established organizations.

It’s annoying when people and organizations are intimidated because of ones ability to learn and move fast (applied knowledge); it’s what’s needed to survive and shape the future.

One of the benefits Generalists bring to the table is perspective, that’s why it’s hard for us to stay in one lane and pursue one single thing at the time. But we’ll focus once we figure out an intriguing course of action while also maintaining perspective.

Challenge #4: Organizations don’t know what to do with Generalists

Generalists are catalysts for transformation. Organizations that don’t understand this eventually perish. Unfortunately, Generalists are misunderstood, misused and dismissed all over.

Yes, this is very real. Specialists are innovators too, but their challenge is being aware that what they know limits what they can imagine. Leaders who want to overcome this challenge must understand that expertise is an enemy of innovation, and that’s where Generalists come in to add value by expanding the context.

Different and better solutions don’t come from looking at things from the same perspective, it comes from frame shifting. Generalists, with their wide know-how do this intuitively.

An essential component of the getting the most from I’s and T’s is to create the conditions for serendipity, getting people to interact with each other, where new ideas emerge that are the fuel for innovation:

Finally, you don’t manage Generalists; you unleash them:

Bottom line: New challenges require new approaches. For innovation to take place, it’s not discipline or creativity; it’s both at the same time. Generalists are hardwired to reinvent, unleashing and giving them space to apply their strengths is one of the smartest decisions any organization will make.

Also published on Medium.

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