Creative Generalist: Link & Leap
Perhaps the most obvious of generalist characteristics is the connect-the-dots serendipity-searching that comes from linking disparate subjects together. Such cross-disciplinary and cross-cultural knitting is core to moving from incremental innovation to transcending ideation. Generalists leverage the existing wealth of specialist insight and initiative to find ideas that remarkably overcome intellectual dead-ends, open up whole new avenues of opportunity, and even devastatingly leapfrog competitors.
Creative Generalist is a six-part series
In his groundbreaking book The Medici Effect, Frans Johansson offers dozens of examples of how ideas mixed, crossed, blended, collided with, or seduced by other completely different and seemingly irrelevant ideas are producing some of our time’s best dishes, strongest materials, timeliest medical discoveries, liveliest cities, and most interesting music. He notes that “… the movement of people, the convergence of science, and the leap of computation are giving rise to more intersections than ever [and] the individuals or teams who find these intersections are likely to be the ones who radically change our world.” Exactly the domain of generalists.
“People everywhere are aware that the world is changing incredibly fast – and they wish to know what that means for them, their organizations and their constituencies. Many understand that the solution might not be to do the exact same thing one did in the past – only faster, bigger and better. So they look for solutions in unconventional places – searching for unique connections. There is no doubt that most leaders I have met understand the need for this. Now, that said, there is a world of difference between understanding such a thing intellectually and actually acting on it. This last part – actually pursuing intersectional thinking, actually making changes by introducing quite different perspectives is not something most leaders relish. It is tough and could, with the wrong approach, be fraught with risk. So one avoids it.”
Great leaders excel at grasping the broader context of situations. Real leadership, encompassing multiple complex issues and a variety of differing perspectives, necessitates a true generalist mindset. This applies at the corporate and non-profit level but it applies especially in the political realm. Most important of all, effective leaders today understand that we’re no longer operating in a linear cause-and-effect world but rather in more of a web-like ecosystem where inter-relationships shape direction, decisions, and delegation.
Perhaps this is the reason why many ecologists tend to be generalists? It’s a field of study that focuses on the global worldview and necessitates an understanding that things simply do not happen in isolation of other things. As Peter Senge championed in his classic on systems thinking The Fifth Discipline, it’s all connected. And ignoring this – and especially working against it – is what gets us into trouble.
Explains David Suzuki, geneticist, environmentalist, and host of CBC’s The Nature of Things: “Today, most of us live in a shattered world. A world of disconnected bits and pieces, so it is no longer easy to recognize our place. And when we can’t see the connections, we fail to recognize causal relationships and therefore feel no responsibility.”
“Scientists focus on a part of nature, separate that part, control everything impinging on it and measure everything within it, thereby acquiring insights into that part of nature. But in the process of focusing, we lose sight of the context – the rhythms, patterns and cycles – within which that fragment exists and functions. So we fragment the whole into isolated bits and pieces. No one wants to stop progress, but when it is so narrowly defined, we never ask ‘How much is enough?’, ‘Why do we need all this?’ or ‘What is an economy for?’”
Ironically, the lessons learned from biodiversity may help us to restore it. Environmental challenges confronting us today demand a much better understanding of systems. From hurricanes like Katrina to the conservation of endangered species, figuring out how to coordinate disparate resources, forge cooperative efforts, and imagine solutions to complex problems will require especially broad thinking. Unfortunately, there’s a drawback for those who do: the big picture burden; that as you understand more the true scope of problems and the colossal collective effort needed to solve them, you realize just how negligent we are of inter-relationships and the long view. As individuals, as communities, as nations, are we doing enough to effect enough positive change?
This is the fourth 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.