Monday, January 18, 2016

Generalists v. Specialists

Good morning.
"And the beat goes on…………………"

Another post from the queue.

We live in a niche world.  While the promise of the internet to unite us in a global world has leveled the playing field in terms of access and arguably shrunk the world, it has also created countless smaller niches of specialty interests.  Beginning even before Henry Ford ushered in the era of specialized tasks on his assembly lines, the world was moving towards people having expertise in limited areas.  Doctors, lawyers and thousands of other professions moved from being general practitioners to being specialists.  When we are sick, or need legal help, we face having to deal with an array of experts.   Today, technology has accelerated that movement towards specialization.  And in the private sector, only at the top of the ladder are there really any generalists.  Throughout companies, people don monikers of specialists.  The same is true in our nonprofit arts field.  We have marketers, finance people, program officers, fundraiser / development experts, education people, outreach and engagement people, IT officers and more.

The generalists among us - those that have an overall vision of where to take an organization and how to do it - are increasingly only those who are our chief executives.  Everybody else specializes in some distinct area.  Companies and organizations are organized into hierarchies and separate departments.  Each has a job to do to move those companies and organizations forward toward their purposes and missions.

Being a generalist isn't the kind of entry on one's resume that leads to getting hired, and so we downplay its role in our personal and organizational success.  Yet on the other side of the coin, we have to be aware that technology is moving to eventually replace a lot of us and our specialized expertise with software, apps, coding and even robotics (and don't scoff, because very few jobs are not being targeted by technology)

This trend seems inevitable over time - everywhere.  When companies or organizations are launched, there are often no resources to hire people who are theoretically trained and expert in specific jobs, and thus the original founders need to wear multiple hats and juggle multiple jobs in order to survive.  But as organizations grow, and resources increase, they quickly move to hiring people who are not charged with the full range of tasks necessary to move towards realization of the organization's vision, but rather are the worker bees who, in the aggregate, move the organization forward by being a part of a larger machine effort.

But I wonder if that's smart?  I wonder what is lost as organizations move to that level?

The world - our world - is a constantly, and often dramatically, changing environment. By assigning everyone a narrow range of tasks, without a means to tap into their individual and collective intelligence and creativity, are we losing some critical energy and thinking as to the whole of our organizations?  I have repeatedly heard from people on arts organization staffs lament the fact that their advice and counsel is rarely sought as to the big picture.  And, in some cases, staffs are not even informed of the kind of major decisions that impact the whole of an organization over time.  As often as not, the decision making as to those moves resides exclusively at the top, and there is no attempt to involve the rank and file of the organization.  Not only are the final decisions handed down as fait accompli, but the whole process of how the decisions are influenced and ultimately made isn't shared.  What is lost in such a case?  In some cases, the loss, while not immediately recognizable, can be measured in lost production and turn-over rates as those who are treated (even if unintentionally) as cogs are less motivated to have the organization's best interests at heart.

And even our executive leaders - the ostensible generalists among us - are today increasingly required to be specialists themselves - most frequently as fundraisers.  Time and lack of money dictate that the myriad of daily critical small tasks take precedent over thinking as a generalist. So even their positions, as those who have the space and resources to consider the whole picture, is compromised and degraded;  even they are becoming only quasi-generalists.  Theoretically, Board members fulfill that role to a degree, but do they?  Even Board members are recruited for their specializations and assigned niches in how they can help the organization.  Focusing on the whole of the organization is often relegated to an annual planning retreat process.  But shouldn't it be rather an ever present, on-going process?

The fact is that we need both - we need specialists and we need generalists.  The pendulum seems to have swung towards more specialists.

So who's minding the store as it were in terms of continually considering the big picture and how to fit within that big picture?  Is the answer in many cases, nobody?

How then do we pay attention to that big picture?  What can we do within the structures of our organizations to make sure we are always considering ideas to advance our purposes and missions, and I mean big ideas, not the little (though important) ideas that have to do with our own areas of specialization?

I think there are two things we can do without much trouble.  First, talk about it - openly. What are people's thoughts about the role of generalists within the organization?  And second, figure out how everyone in the organization - staff, board, volunteers, supporters etc. can be encouraged to be generalists - at least some of the time - so we can tap into that collective creativity that can help our organizations not just to survive, but to thrive.  We have to value the role of the generalist without asking anyone to shutter their role as specialist.  That is the true multi-juggling of tasks.

Have a great week.

Don't Quit