Why and how to be a generalist in a wicked VUCA world

by | Sep 7, 2019 | Blog | 0 comments

Do you like playing in multiple lanes rather than sticking within the parameters of your chosen profession? How do you feel about exploring new subject areas rather than being known as a SME (subject matter expert)? How about making connections between people, ideas and random thoughts?

If you enjoy learning a little bit about a lot of things, you’ll relish David Epstein’s engaging and thought-provoking new best-seller, Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World. It was one of this summer’s two selections for The Next Big Idea Club, which is how I came to read it.

Range challenges common assumptions about education, the arts, sports, scientific discoveries, innovation, technology, and organizational effectiveness.

In the last two pages of the last chapter, Epstein explains why he wrote this book:

“The question I set out to explore was how to capture and cultivate the power of breadth, diverse experiences, and interdisciplinary exploration, within systems that increasingly demand hyperspecialization, and would have you decide what you should be before first figuring out who you are.”

A journalist by training, Epstein is a great storyteller. He casts a wide net for tales that illustrate how individuals best learn who they are, what they enjoy and how they can best perform and contribute by stretching their boundaries. In other words, they open their minds and they explore, dabble and adapt. Furthermore, they often succeed, making advancements that contribute to society or their organizations, and sometimes both.

According to Epstein, generalists – or in many cases specialists who also like to experiment in other areas – are better equipped to excel in today’s wicked VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) world.

Here’s why. When you’re constantly facing new problems and challenges, you’re not getting automatic feedback on what’s worked before. So you can’t rely just on your experience or your intuition. You’ve got to drop your traditional tools and usual assumptions and think differently. You need to consider unrelated events that may have structural commonalities.

To add substance to his stories, Epstein summarizes key scientific concepts around learning and expertise, including why slow learning is more beneficial than fast even though many of us may not like it as well.

Epstein also shares some useful insights about achieving good “match quality” between your work and your talents and interests; striving for sense-making, sometimes over problem-solving; and being more curious, especially around science, to help you see more evidence as well as possibilities.

While the book is chockful of useful concepts, these three ideas jumped off the page as being most helpful for business:  

1.Incongruence can be just as or even more valuable than congruence. Since the early 1980s, “congruence” has been the gold standard for corporate cultures, based on the Congruence Model developed by David Nadler and Michael Tushman, which I used extensively while working as a Mercer Delta consultant.

The Congruence Model is based on the principle that an organization, or team, can be successful only when these four components – the work, the people who do it, the organization’s structure, and the culture – all fit and operate together in a congruent manner.

Now in a VUCA world, organizational researchers are finding that cultures that tolerate ambiguity – and incongruity — are more flexible and are able to learn and adapt faster. The ambiguity helps decision makers take a broader perspective and consider multiple tools and ways to make decisions.

2. With distance can come clarity. Outsiders often can solve complex challenges faster and better than those who deal with them daily. The outsiders’ solutions can be more innovative too. That’s because outsiders can use their distance to reframe the problem in a new or novel way that unlocks the mystery for them. Those in the middle of the problem often get stuck in their thinking, especially if they’re only looking at the problem from one or two knowledge domains. So don’t be afraid to tap into the wisdom of others.

3. Don’t confuse the chain of command with the chain of communication. Communication should flow freely inside an organization, non-filtered. That encourages a broad and speedy exchange of information and ideas. This open flow may create some tensions among the chain of command. However, everyone in the organization should view that as healthy tension.

Reading Range gave me permission to follow my nose, ears, heart and head and learn about topics that interest me. As a result, I may go down paths I didn’t expect and find myself at dead ends at times, but that’s part of the fun and surprise of discovery. Hope to see you around!


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