The developed world seems to have long had a love affair with specialists, often resulting in disciplines and occupations becoming ever more niche.
There is however a flip side to this, which you may have experienced. We certainly see it regularly in large organisations: for example everyone’s working really hard, doing their very best to help solve a problem, but they can only perceive it in the discrete world of their specialism. What they often miss are the connections between different elements of the whole, which it turns out are crucial when it comes to finding a valid, practical solution.
Take for example the world of medicine: you have a problem and get referred to a specialist. Very often that’s absolutely the right course of action. But at times they can’t see anything wrong and send you to see another specialist, and so it goes on. Finally you see someone who has a more removed, holistic perspective, and bingo, the problem is solved. The problem and its solution wasn’t where the specialists were looking. (If you’d like an interesting example of this, showing the difference in approach between neurologists and an osteopath, please let me know).
Just to be clear here, I by no means want to bash specialists. We need them for sure. But we also need generalists; people whose broader understanding of the whole helps with synthesising ideas from disparate disciplines, and mitigating unforeseen impacts. And we need specialist facilitators whose skill enables diverse groups of specialists to successfully create value together.
Alain Bejjani, CEO of Majid Al Futtaim, with whom we’ve had the pleasure to work over past years suggests: “I think we’re moving from a world of specialists toward a world of generalists. Generalists have been very underrated. We need more of them because the issues that are being raised by technology, AI, and machine learning are complex, and the problems we will need to solve are multidisciplinary in nature. Leaders need to adapt to all kinds of different circumstances, and generalists can succeed when life is so fast and volatile. We’re in the midst of a disruption no one anticipated, and I believe we will need more generalists to lead in disruptive times, whether they’re caused by technological shifts or this unimagined pandemic.”
We totally agree. We’re passionate believers in the work of David Bohm (of ‘Wholeness and the Implicate Order’ fame). Bohm suggested fragmentation is the root of the troubles we face in society. Fragmentation comes from thought, and when the prevailing attitude is ‘we need to specialise more and more in order to advance’, we create a fragmented world through our thinking.
“Some might say: ‘Fragmentation of cities, religions, political systems, conflict in the form of wars, general violence, fratricide, etc., are the reality. Wholeness is only an ideal, toward which we should perhaps strive.’ But this is not what is being said here. Rather, what should be said is that wholeness is what is real, and that fragmentation is the response of this whole to man’s action, guided by illusory perception, which is shaped by fragmentary thought.” David Bohm
Bohm was years ahead of his time, and personally I’m so thankful for his work as it’s helped us advance the world of dialogue in organisations, and in society.
For the past 16 years we have passionately been specialist generalists. Don’t get me wrong, when given the time to get quickly up to speed we can hold a good conversation with many a specialist out there, but we know that all that specialist knowledge has to fit in with the whole in order to generate long-term benefit.
It’s like the fantastic IT solutions that are being created in Silicon Valley by a clear majority of males, who are brilliant at their very technical jobs. If they don’t include people from other disciplines and at least one generalist to pull everything together in a way that fits the market, there's plenty of evidence to show that the resulting solution ends up having a lot of unintended negative consequences, like not catering to minorities, resulting in them feeling disengaged.
So what are your thoughts?
We’d love to know your thoughts.