The Neo-Generalist has just launched. It is an inspiring book that recognises the need for specialist expertise while at the same time highlighting the value of multidisciplinarity at both an individual and organisational level.
In this interview, co-author Richard Martin shares his views on why corporates need big-picture thinkers to be working alongside hyperspecialists. He highlights some of the characteristics and behaviours typical of a neo-generalist, describing their impact on the management of relationships at work. He also offers some examples of how neo-generalists seek to stay relevant in the workplace.
Gloria Lombardi: What are the main characteristics of The Neo-generalist as described in the book?
Richard Martin: The neo-generalists have both breadth and depth of expertise; a form of serial mastery across several disciplines. They are extremely curious people, exploring well beyond the bounds of formal education, shaping and taking responsibility for their own learning. For them, learning can happen anywhere, at any time.
While their preference is to generalise, exploring multiple areas of interest at the same time, they are able to specialise deeply too. In this respect, they are highly responsive, constantly adapting to context, but always on the lookout for what is next. Because they tend to traverse multiple domains, they are very good at making connections between people and ideas.
GL: Are the specialist roles still relevant? If so, to what extent?
RM: Absolutely. Our thesis is not anti-specialist nor anti-expert. Rather we are arguing that there is a continuum between specialism and generalism; that all points on that continuum have relevance in our society.
Take an example from healthcare: You would not expect to have a consultation with a brain surgeon about the flu. By the same token, you would not expect a general practitioner to operate on your brain. The GP’s own medical knowledge is broad. It is supplemented by access to a vast network of specialist practitioners in different fields of healthcare. The surgeon has refined skills in a very narrow, highly specialised discipline. Both are greatly valued by us all. No one is arguing that the specialist surgeon should be replaced by a generalist. One focuses on a minute part of the human body, the other is interested in the health of the whole, in the person rather than the organ.
GL: What are the main drivers of the rise of the neo-generalist role? Technological developments? Generational change? Globalisation?
RM: Some of the big issues that confront us – economic crisis, mass migration, the politics of fear, terrorism, climate change, population growth, disease, food shortages, longevity of human life – cannot be addressed by one specialist discipline alone.
There is a need for border-crossing capabilities, for interdisciplinarity on a grand scale. For those who can bring together and facilitate multiple fields of specialism.
Do I think neo-generalism is on the rise? I am reserving judgment at the moment. There are some commentators, like Ian Goldin and Chris Kutarna (authors of Age of Discovery), who argue that we are in the midst of a new Renaissance. I am not convinced. Not yet. I still see the insidious effects of the industrial age in most places that I look. We still have significant flaws in our education system. In the ways that we think about jobs. The ways we recruit to and assess them. The ways we are fiercely protective of our intellectual and expert domains. The ways that we segment and label. Until we address some of these systemic failings, there is unlikely to be much favour shown to neo-generalists, only to whatever specialism they can demonstrate in a given context at a given time.
What we do hope The Neo-Generalist will do is grant a sense of belonging and identity to people with neo-generalist tendencies. I remember when I first read Susan Cain’s Quiet thinking that here was someone who understood me without ever having met me. I hope some readers have the same reaction reading our book.
GL: If there is one thing to learn from your book, what that would be?
RM: We all have the potential to be neo-generalists. Just because we have made certain educational and career choices does not preclude us from following our curiosity, adding to our learning and experience.
It is not necessary to compartmentalise and categorise everything. We are all a walking assembly of the things we have read, the experiences we have had, the conversations we have taken part in, the people we have met, the places we have visited. As our subtitle states: where you go is who you are. Each person is a unique mash-up of many fragments, carrying great possibility.
GL: Could you give me an example of the concrete application of the neo-generalist at work?
RM: In my own case, I have a PhD in film studies. Here is an example of someone hyperspecialising, going ‘narrow and deep’ into a topic. Not long after graduating, however, I taught myself how to code, and picked up skills in UX and web design. I found I was cross-pollinating from film studies to another screen-based medium, thinking about how we position and consume information. Later on, I dared to take my extracurricular interest in the sport of cycling and apply it in a workplace context, using the metaphor of the peloton to unlock and communicate my understanding of adaptive systems and responsive organisations. I refused to be constrained by unnecessary borders.
In another example, Susy Paisley-Day, a friend who is featured in The Neo-Generalist, is a conservation biologist who is also an artist, textile designer and activist. Susy is a renowned expert on the spectacled bear, which can be found in the Apolobamba region of the Andes. In recent years, though, she has used her scientific expertise to inform her art and textile work. These tell stories about endangered species and the preservation of ecosystems. She is tearing down the artificial boundaries that exist between different disciplines, selling art, founded upon science, to fund activism.
GL: How does the rise of the neo-generalist change the management of relationships at work?
RM: Personally, I see it bound up with the notion of responsiveness.
If an organisation or community is truly responsive, then it requires people who can specialise or generalise in the right context, who can lead and follow, coach and be coached. It is about fluidity and adaptiveness.
That requires trust-based relationships, a willingness to learn from others, to serve and share. There is a level of elasticity that is required; an ability to shapeshift. The connective capabilities of the neo-generalist are essential too: not simply bridge building and communication; not just connecting people, or even ideas, but connecting the past and the future too. This is central to the notion of leadership and legacy that we explore in chapter 10 in the book.
GL: And, how does it impact on career development?
RM: The way we look at career development at the moment, it tends to be about the past. To recruit someone, you look at what educational qualifications they earned, what they did in their last job, and how closely this matches the cookie cutter shape you have in mind for the current job. There is a tendency to seek like-for-like replacements, to put together teams that drift towards uniformity rather than diversity of skills and mindset. Assessment too remains backwards-oriented.
With the neo-generalist approach, you need to throw the cookie cutter away and start looking to the future. We require diversity individually and collectively. Yesterday may give us some scaffolding, but it is unlikely to provide all the answers for tomorrow’s problems, or equip us to take advantage of the unexpected opportunity.
Many of the careers we know today may be gone within a short space of time. That is not a new phenomenon. Technological advances, industrial declines, are perennial. So diversifying is essential to remain relevant in the future. If you cannot continue doing what you have always been paid to do, what else can you do? What other interests or experiences do you have that you can add to the mix, shaping a unique offering? Serial mastery can help differentiate you from another person, algorithm or app competing for the same job.
GL: Looking at the future, which traits should workers display to stay relevant and offer real value at work?
RM: In the second part of The Neo-Generalist, we explore some of the characteristics and behaviours that we associate with the concept. Among them are: An acceptance that we are always in beta, never the finished product. An understanding that we never truly know (recognising that the history of scientific discovery teaches us that what was correct yesterday is wrong tomorrow; that the bounds of the unknown grow exponentially). A passion for learning fuelled by never-sated curiosity. A tolerance of ambiguity. An ability to adapt to change. A willingness to test out the crazy hypothesis, as an opportunity to either create or educate. Plus a host of skills that we associate with leadership, sense-making and communication.
Always, the neo-generalist is tending a garden that they may never see come to bloom. The future they serve may not be one they get to enjoy themselves.