Creative Generalist: Mix & Match
As important as possibility, information, and ideas are, they are all for naught without real people working together to discover and explore such new territory. And where would such introduction and cooperation be without the agent, the broker, the networker, and the matchmaker? This, perhaps the most human and age-old aspect of generalism, is paradoxically also the part that’s been so successfully expanded by new technology – particularly online applications. InnoCentive, TopCoder, and Goldcorp are to scientists, programmers, and geologists, respectively, what Facebook, OK Cupid, and Wikipedia are to friends, daters, and recreational historians and biographers: vast pools of people and projects from which to filter and find the most relevant and useful.
Creative Generalist is a six-part series
Specialists are inevitably and relentlessly becoming even more specialized. So too are projects and the unique set of requirements each entail. The supplier market has fractured repeatedly, making it difficult to keep track of what is available and by whom. This has happened in many different fields. Science has moved from being a handful of scientific disciplines – physics, biology, chemistry – to being broken down into hundreds of specialist components. Postgraduates don’t study biology anymore; they study distinct branches of biology. In media, television has gone from consisting of a few large networks to a selection of cable stations to a thousand channel universe comprised of highly specialized niche channels. And outsourcing and offshoring have only drilled home the point even more.
The amazing amount and variety of specialization in the world necessitates generalization to make sense of it all. There remains a vital role for the general practitioner. In medicine, an area also experiencing increased rapid fragmentation, for example, there is a valuable service to keeping people from visiting a urologist or a foot surgeon to diagnose such maladies as an earache or a heart attack. As anybody at Google or Craigslist can attest, scouts and matchmakers positioned at the gateway to a standard that legitimates a specialty will have as much or more to gain as the specialists themselves.
The successful and productive mixing and matching of people will always require a human touch, design. As incredibly useful as social networking tools are, they are limited because they are used voluntarily and by the self-aware. There are many instances where organizations are not, in their processes, motivated to function horizontally or outside of their traditional bounds, and there are many talented individuals locked in the tunnel vision of their pursuits, blindly unaware that collaboration could be the best move they make.
As an example of the former, consider the invaluable role that someone like Dr. Terry Rock plays in the development and quality of life of North America’s fastest-growing city. Rock was CEO of the Calgary Arts Development Association where he was responsible for putting in place the strategic foundation, political stewardship, and pure enthusiasm that the city’s arts scene needs to thrive. A major part of this job was the shepherding of numerous and vastly different constituencies, including politicians, bureaucrats, artists, businesspeople, and the public towards an ultimate goal. “For whatever reason, I can vividly see long chains of action and have an idea of what needs to happen to get from point A to point Z. I’m sure this capacity comes from the experience base I’ve built up combined with my doctoral work in Strategy, Entrepreneurship & Innovation. In the worlds I span, I bring the ability to see opportunities that come from making connections that others don’t notice. Maybe I was born to be a spanner?”
Finding specialists and spanning specialties are two useful HR roles of generalists. A third is linking ideative and imaginative thinkers with creative and innovative doers, and striking the best balance among them all in an organization. Not art. Not science. It’s design – and it’s not easy.
Steve Rechtschaffner understands this. As the former Chief Creative Officer of video games titan Electronic Arts, he identified role and skill balance as a core aspect of successful product design. “Software engineers often approach the world differently than an artist might. Even a conceptual artist might approach the world differently than an executionally oriented artist would. Different points of view need to be involved at different times within a project otherwise the level of discomfort can be stifling. Having a typical software engineer involved when a concept is at its loosest is not usually a good idea. By nature and by training, a good engineer is usually looking to answer all the open questions as quickly as possible. While often, a good conceptual artist or designer is looking around trying to find other ways of approaching an opportunity, even if they already have a plausible solution.” Generalists play the often overlooked yet essential role of identifying specialists’ strengths and directing project activities and timing in such a way that makes the most effective use of them.
This is the fifth of a six-part series on creative generalism. It is adapted from a February 2008 post by Steve Hardy on his blog, Creative Generalist, and reposted here, in its adapted form, with the author's permission.