The Neo-generalist: Reflections on a new book

I recently finished reading Kenneth Mikkelsen and Richard Martin’s excellent new book, The Neo-generalist, which I was alerted to by Harold Jarche’s blog. I found the book a really useful contribution to the traditional dichotomy between specialism and generalism which led me to consider some further questions about what it means for neo-generalists themselves but also for how they add value to others.

I was naturally drawn to the book as I have always struggled with the prevailing specialism culture and found it hard in this context to articulate the mix of skills and experience I can bring to my clients, and how this has changed over time. (Over twenty years ago a colleague called me multi-faceted, a description which I still love but it does make it difficult to help others understand what I can do.) In a world which increasingly focuses on specialists, I have often used (and shared) the idea of being T-shaped to demonstrate the added value that I can bring but it is usually the specialist aspects that potential clients or employers focus on. There is no doubt that deep specialism is needed for some roles (though to my mind always with the addition of the broad understanding which a T-shaped person brings), but is there also a role for the neo-generalist? This is a person that Mikkelsen & Martin suggest switches between generalism and specialism as necessary, and will often have a number of areas of deeper expertise or experience to draw on. In her book, The Shift, Lynda Gratton argues that serial mastery is required as people need to adapt to the changing requirements from work but her focus is very much that specialisation is key (though in a more recent blog article she indicates that she is re-visiting the starkness of this to some degree). Neo-generalism seeks to make this a more fluid concept by allowing people to operate as specialists or generalists as the context dictates. What The Neo-generalist doesn’t suggest is that you can just be a generalist with a superficial level of knowledge in many areas; there has to be some depth too.  However, the authors do remind us that the admonition “A jack of all trades is a master of none” also has a second part in the original: “but oftentimes better than a master of one.”. In full “A jack of all trades is a master of none, but oftentimes better than a master of one.”  One question then is how deep does a neo-generalist need to go when being a specialist. Perhaps the answer is ‘just deep enough’ but then how do you communicate your ability to do this to others?

Some people have a personal preferences and interest in exploring different fields, understanding their interaction and how these might be applied. Finding things that we enjoy and are good at is an important part of fulfilment at work, so this is clearly important. It has been interesting to see the types of people that have commented on the book on social media and, perhaps unsurprisingly, they (we) tend to see them(our)selves as neo-generalists. There is clearly a sense that it is good to see other people out there with some similar characteristics but also with similar challenges; the book can help to validate or legitimise the path that neo-generalists take whilst also providing a helpful structure for thinking about how to communicate a neo-generalists’ skills and value.

Over the last ten years or so I have used a strengths-focused approach to helping individuals and teams be more successful. Here, strengths are not just things that we are good at but that also energise us. The Gallup research on the use of strengths continues to show that people who use their strengths are more engaged and productive. Strengths are things like strategic thinking, relationship building, resilience and decisiveness (from the Strengthscope tool) rather than technical skills or domain knowledge. It strikes me that the characteristics that are described for neo-generalists are more strengths-like than they are skills or knowledge, and as such energise us. (It is worth noting  that one of the things that I talk with coaching clients about is the risk of strengths going into overdrive, ie being used too much or in the wrong situations, and that managing this is a key aspect of being effective.)

A meaningful life though also involves delivering a positive contribution and adding value somewhere, somehow. Most of us also need to find a way to translate what we can do and enjoy into some means of generating income and hence we need to demonstrate the value that we can add to others. This can be difficult as we don’t fit in any, or just one, of the traditional boxes. In a world where social media is pervasive it is more difficult than ever to communicate how a neo-generalist adds value since it is no longer as easy to tailor the communication to a target audience; everyone can see the same message. One of the arguments for neo-generalists is that the complex issues that we face in the world today require people who can take a broad perspective to understand the inter-relatedness of different aspects and hence identify and implement more integrated solutions. In part of course this is what is known as a systems thinker and it is clear that people with this capability can often throw new light onto issues. Neo-generalists can bring novel ideas from the different disciplines and fields that they have worked in, often linking ideas together in unusual ways. It can also be valuable for an organisation to be able to turn to a single trusted advisor who understand their specific situation for help with different problems. Individual clients will often only see our behaviours that we demonstrate with them whilst we might have a much broader range of capabilities below the surface. My experience suggests that not all clients value the breadth of capabilities that a neo-generalist can bring (often wanting deep specialisation in their very well defined area) but when you find those that do, you can build a long and productive relationship which can easily cross boundaries.

The book illustrates the concepts of neo-generalism through a series of case study interviews which are very interesting for seeing how people with diverse backgrounds have been successful. (These have prompted me to attempt to write my own (much less exotic) story which hopefully I will share soon!) However, as Ilkka Kakko identifies in his blog, these people with multi-cultural, multi-educational, multi-career backgrounds seem almost like super-humans. Couple this with the final paragraph of the book which says that the interviewees are “filled with an entrepreneurial spirit, effortless leadership qualities, an ability to guide and mentor, and an innate never-sated thirst for knowledge”, one has to wonder whether ordinary humans can be neo-generalists or it is the preserve of a super few. Is there a role for neo-generalists in the main body of the workforce?

A recent article in Forbes pointed to a 2015 PWC survey of more than a thousand CEOs which cited curiosity as a critical leadership trait necessary to navigating challenging times. One CEO even noted that business leaders who “are always expanding their perspective and what they know—and have that natural curiosity—are the people that are going to be successful”. I suspect that the leadership and entrepreneurial skills mentioned above were also on the list. Future skills 2020 from the Institute for the Future (2011) identified 10 skills that would be needed by everyone in 2020. They include trans-disciplinarity, sense making, cross-cultural competence, and novel and adaptive thinking; very much neo-generalist skills. If everyone is to be like that in (now) just four years and the need for continual learning and re-skilling is well recognised, then what is left for neo-generalists? What is it that really makes neo-generalists different from those that succeed in more traditional ways. How can we help others understand this?

This raises some interesting questions for the future workforce and its development. First, how many neo-generalists are needed – are they just a very small proportion of people who can add their wisdom to situations with others then getting on and implementing within their own specialisms. Second and related, does it work better to have neo-generalists that can work like this, or are better solutions arrived at by helping specialists collaborate more effectively. And third, is it a role best suited to those outside a system? Or, perhaps a more generative set of questions would be ‘in what situations would neo-generalists be most useful and how should they be engaged with?’ It is beholden on neo-generalists to answer these questions since the majority of people still live in a specialist/generalist world. Or, do we have to create our own organisation (or ecosystem) from within which to add value to customers as some of those interviewed in the book did?

The Neo-Generalist is an excellent addition to the specialism/generalism debate and it has been good to see so much positive feedback for it. It includes many more subtle and sophisticated ideas than I have been able to address here. which others have addressed. However, as most comments are from neo-generalists, we should be careful that we don’t end up in some form of echo chamber where the same views continue to be reinforced without some alternative perspectives. It would be interesting to get the views of more non-neo-generalists such leaders in large organisations on where/whether they see the role of the neo-generalist.

Clearly, being a neo-generalist is unlikely to be the easy road to travel, but if the value that we add can be clearly articulated (and it is our responsibility to make it easy for others to understand us) then it can be a fulfilling role which may fit well with our strengths, beliefs and values.