Effectively using generalists

Bob Lewis has written an excellent column on the benefits of generalists (as opposed to specialists) for work that involves practices rather than processes. Bob's talking about software development, but the principles he espouses are broadly applicable to the modern enterprise:

Processes are recipes: Follow the steps exactly and good results must follow. While practices also involve a series of steps, following them exactly leads to failure. Practitioners must apply their knowledge, experience and judgment in executing each step ...

But business theorists [have] extrapolated, applying the mass production model of increased specialization, organized sequencing, and interchangeability to business practices ... we've found that a collection of generalists, each of whom is competent in the whole craft, outperforms a team of specialists who segment responsibilities into a structured workflow.

The time has come for us to evangelize our discovery. Because elsewhere in the enterprise are managers who have been trying manfully (and sometimes womanfully) to force the square peg of factory-style organization into the round hole of the fast, creative, non-repetitive outcomes they're responsible for.

[V]ery little of the work in a modern corporation looks like mass production unless your gaze is cockeyed.

As an avowed generalist myself, I would love to believe that we are the solution to all the world's problems. However, from personal experience I know that generalists also tend to have a few blind spots.

A powerful definition for a generalist is that of "an outcome-focused problem solver". That is, generalists excel at identifying routes that bridge the gap between A and B. A true generalist should never preference one route based on previous experience or expertise, but be open to all solutions.

However, because generalists normally have a wide range of options available to them, they may identify and choose the simplest available solution without considering longer term costs and benefits. You've all met this person before: the person who codes up an Access database in three weeks and then leaves behind an unmaintainable mess, or the one who decides to implement a tool that becomes critical to the company but that no-one else has any idea how to operate. Many generalist solutions are inherently unstable and will often break down over time.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. Generalist problem solving creates an agile organisation where old solutions are dropped to make way for better new ones.

So if you manage a generalist, there are two critical principles to follow:

  • Monitor your risk profile - If this solution fell over tomorrow and couldn't be fixed, what would the impact on the business be? Generally speaking, loss of productivity when the solution breaks is acceptable, but loss of records, data or capability is not.
  • Have a knowledge transfer plan - Demand adequate documentation and commentary on all solutions. Build in redundant staffing arrangements and have handover plans prepared

Once again, having generalist problem solvers around can produce powerful productivity benefits to your organisation. But don't let their enthusiasm for outcomes blind you or them to the need for future business continuity needs.

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