Creative Generalist: Synthesize & Summarize
“I force specialists to speak in terms that I, a generalist, can understand,” says Susan August, a Requirements Storyteller and Technical Analyst formerly at InnoPath Software in Silicon Valley. “This encourages them to be clear, and to articulate their domain knowledge from a different perspective. These are healthy behaviors! I then take what I’ve heard and generalize it one step further, so that any team member can return to the conversation later to understand what was discussed and what was decided. It’s my job to collapse the Tower of Babble that specialists construct around themselves; it’s my job to help the team agree upon and use a common language.”
Creative Generalist is a six-part series
The role that August plays is critical, not just among technologists but also with academics, lawyers, scientists, technicians, doctors, and the mechanic at your local auto garage. Experts know stuff that you don’t and they use language to explain it that you probably don’t understand. It’s a problem.
“At last count there were more than twenty thousand different disciplines, each of them staffed by researchers straining to replace what they produced yesterday,” quips John Burke, host of the long-running TV program Connections and catalyst of an admirably ambitious educational tool called The Knowledge Web. “These noodling world-changers are spurred on by at least two powerful motivators. The first is that you are more than likely to achieve recognition if you make your particular research niche so specialist that there’s only room in it for you. So the aim of most scientists is to know more and more about less and less, and to describe what it is they know in terms of such precision as to be virtually incomprehensible to their colleagues, let alone the general public.” This presents an obvious informational roadblock which curtails valuable learning that both the expert and non-expert could profit from. If everybody is an expert in something, we must find better ways of translating and sharing what it is everybody knows.
Diversity fuels further diversity. Niches lead to generalities to niches to generalities. “Development is differentiation emerging from generality,” wrote Jane Jacobs in her book The Nature of Economies. “[T]he process is open-ended and it produces increasing diversity and increasingly various, numerous, and intricate co-development relationships.” Such an expansion is exponential and an ever-widening gap emerges between companies that can advantageously make sense of fragments and those that cannot. In other words, further potentially lucrative niches come only to those that synthesize the niche’s roots. The hidden treasure then is discovering or rediscovering “obsolete generalities”, as Jacobs described them, because “even the most obscure and frivolous are potentially economically fertile, provided that somebody who needs them can find them.” Innovation is greatly accelerated by inspiration because it offers us the opportunity to better assess what has already been done, where else it can be applied, and how we should direct our formidable focus.
Jacobs argued that that economic expansion relies on capturing, using and then re-using transient energy. The more successful systems are particularly adept at recycling this energy before it is discharged because they have more diverse ways of identifying it, taking it apart, recombining it, passing it around, and recycling it. This rich, diverse environment in turn grows even larger from within because of its excellent self-refueling capabilities. So, for example, a lush rainforest is a much more robust ecosystem than a semi-barren desert because of how well it processes energy received from the sun. In the forest it is absorbed and traded around within itself while in a desert much of the inbound energy bounces right back out. Likewise, economically diverse cities (like New York) tend to grow much better than single-export cities (like Detroit) because of their comparatively stronger internal dynamics. Her overall point is that imports, and particularly how well they are “stretched” (by generalists), are much more significant than exports (as many economists would argue). Information is economic sunshine. Do you capture it and trade it around or do you let it bounce away?
Diversity generates economic expansion. We have an environment teeming with differentiations and obscure inspirations by way of hyperinnovation, culture blur, and enhanced communications. Organizations have more points of inspiration, not only as a result of their own activities but also of others’ from every industry all over the world. All of these inspirations simply need to be harvested and formulated into generalities that can then lead to further developments. Simply put, organizations receptive to these by way of a generalist approach that merges disparate fragments win.
This is the third 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.