Marjan’s thread identifies an issue that many people will recognize. If I may, I would like to offer some analysis of the general problem of specialist verses generalist and the related problem of competence and understanding about competence in the real world.
Most people with enquiring minds encounter and wish to understand many aspects of the world around us. In doing so we begin to see that the world is in fact made up of many different elements, threads and interactions. As a result we wish to understand this vast, complex and interrelated environment.
At the same time we also need to develop specific capabilities in certain areas in order to survive, develop relationships and carry out specific tasks that society values. This tension between understanding the world and needing to make decisions about specific things is always around us.
Academia and the world of work tend to direct us down certain paths. Once we are established in these paths we become labelled and find it difficult to break out of that path.
This pressure to narrow our perspective of ourselves comes from external sources – the expectation of employers, professors, people we know etc., and from internal sources – our need to contribute and deliver value for what we do.
This pressure to specialize becomes even greater because often both we and society begin to identify the value in a person based on what they do, rather than the combination of what we do and what we could do.
Given these two pressures, our own internal concept and the external expectation of others, many people find there environment is not fulfilling. The specialist based narrowness feels constricting and the generalist based breadth seems too frightening.
So, how could we deal with this?
The first insight is to realize that the world is full of problems and that what both we and those we may work for wish is that we can solve these problems. Internally such action provides us with a sense of value and worth and externally we provide the value of solving the problem to those we work for or have other relationships with.
The second insight for the generalist is that if problems exist (and they are real problems) then no-one has worked out how to deal with them. Thus what is needed is some form of innovative solution. Innovation comes from new insights and approaches. These insights and approaches are often not inherently difficult rather they represent a new perspective.
Who better to provide such a perspective than a person who has the skills and discipline of a specialist (i.e. they understand how to do good work and all of the knowledge that goes with that) and also has the breadth of a generalist such that they can apply a unique and powerful set of knowledge to a problem.
The third insight relates to competence. Competence is a funny thing. Many different walks of life involve a high percentage of shared skills and knowledge. However, many people refuse to consider people who have worked in one area as being competent in another.
The whole basis of General Systems Theory and much of Jerry’s work on people and behaviours is that underlying most of the things we do in the world is a set of knowledge about how we deal with people and situations. The specific knowledge needed for many different environments is often very small compared to this general knowledge.
The fourth insight relates to taking a step into the unknown. If you work in an organization and notice a problem in an area unconnected with yours, what should you do? Should you pass on that insight or just sit back and say that you don’t really understand that area. Or, should you find someone to talk to and pass on the insight? Taking this latter course is the first step to releasing yourself from the restrictions of the specialist.
So, Marjan, what might these mean to you in trying to make sense of where you should be and what you should do?
Jerry has built a career on this type of approach. Whenever you encounter a situation, if you believe that you have something valuable to say then say it. Say it in a quiet way rather than shouting out that you understand what to do when others don’t.
Most people who have a problem are trying to solve it. If someone quietly and courteously (Jerry seems to be the master of this with a manner that makes everyone feel as if they have contributed and are valued – although from his books he indicates that had to work hard to develop this skill – hard work does payoff sometimes) suggests that they may be able to help, then the person with the problem will usually jump at the chance of a potential solution. In this way those around you begin to look upon you as a problem solver and both listen to you more and more and actively search you out. [J: Inside me, somewhere, is a little kid who wants to scream at certain people and then strangle them. I try to give him other things to do when I’m with people.]
Obviously as a consultant this is relatively easy, as you are engaged on the basis of specific outcomes and you can decide which outcomes you can really create. As an employee it is more difficult, but not much more so. As organizations have delayed and people are working together in teams you will find many opportunities within both your specific environment and up and down the organization hierarchy to engage problems and solve them.
Given these dynamics it is possible for you think about how to apply the knowledge and skill that you have either up the organization hierarchy in a step to engage more general strategic issues that could benefit from a wide generalist view or expand within your existing level to enrich your work with many different challenges. Taking this step is difficult because we have a tendency to think that what we have to say or contribute is not worth much.
If you take that step in a quiet and respectful way you will be amazed at the response you can get and it is highly likely that your current skill will be enough to at least start you on that path. Given that you have the awareness of your own situation and are prepared to take action to gain a greater understanding means that you have a headstart on many others who might like to enrich their lives.
[J: Mike’s advice also applies, perhaps even more strongly, when speaking to myself, inside my head. I need to remember to be quiet and respectful to me, and then various quieter parts of me respond well. Knowing Marjan, I suspect she is much more loudly critical of herself than she ever is of anyone else.]