The future of strategy lies with the generalist, not the specialist.

If, like me, you’ve at some point described yourself as a ‘jack of all trades’, you’ll know that there’s always some smartarse in the room who has chimed in with ‘and a master of none!’, before sitting back in a cloud of unbearable self-satisfaction and smugness.

We’ll deal with you in a moment, smartarse.

Meantime, onto the question.

Does the future belong to the strategic generalist or strategic specialist? Perhaps it belongs to the generalised specialist. Or the specialised generalist. Or just to the generally special? Either way, one thing’s clear – the kind of people who like to ask this sort of question are the sort of people who love to put frameworks around life’s ambiguities – strategists. So, let’s put some strategic rigour around this and begin with some definitions.

Let’s start with language, that great revealer of prejudice.

The word ‘specialist’ is brimming with positive associations – of craftsmanship, artistry, and dedication. Specialists are typographers, illustrators, leatherworkers, raku ceramic pot glazers and Venetian glass blowers. They are the artisans of a bygone age in which dedication, creativity and humility were all you needed to get by (if you had 10,000 hours to invest in your craft).

The word ‘generalist’ on the other hand, is loaded with sneering suggestions of superficiality, slipshoddiness and amateurism. Generalists are middle managers and boardroom manipulators who can’t commit to anything but enjoy telling the rest of us what to do. Ghastly bunch!

But it wasn’t always this way. People who possessed skills in multiple areas of expertise were called polymaths, renaissance men, gentlemen scholars and pioneers.

Let’s take a few examples: Marie Curie was a physicist and chemist – in fact she won Nobel prizes for both, one of only two people in history to win more than one Nobel prize for a different discipline.

The Beatles integrated diverse and unrelated musical influences into a single, era-defining sound on the Sergeant Pepper album. Leonard da Vinci was the definitive ‘renaissance man’ – an artist, inventor, scientist and writer.

And let’s not forget the most influential generalist of them all – God – who was just as skilled at developing first-to-world innovations such as the kangaroo, as he was parting the waters of the Red Sea or turning water to wine. Scientist, zoologist, showman and magician all in one. Impressive stuff, by anyone’s standards.

Those who connect the dots

Generalists are dot connectors. They see connections where others do not. They bring their knowledge of one thing to another and create something new. Charles Babbage’s computer was built on his knowledge of the silk weaving industry.

Harry Beck, an electrician by trade, designed the map of the London Underground as an electronic circuit diagram. King Camp Gillette invented the disposable razor after working in a soda factory and adopting the same disposable product business model for his own company.

The 2+2 = 5 formula is a simple one whose value Leonardo da Vinci knew – “Study the science of art. Study the art of science. Realise that everything connects to everything else”.

So why the disparaging phrase ‘generalist’ and the romanticisation of the specialist? Perhaps it’s because we’re hurtling towards a future that’s uncertain, changeable and unpredictable, and in response, we’re gravitating towards anything that feels like it represents a simpler age. Like specialists.

So, let’s look at the future, which is full of impressive and alarming statistics. And robots. Lots of robots.

The McKinsey Global Institute estimates that by 2030 (that’s not far away, people!), artificial intelligence will have displaced up to a fifth of the global workforce. We’ll also be living longer so ‘most experts believe we will therefore have multiple careers’ according to Forbes.

A career with multiple iterations requires thinking about education differently, too. Technical skills such as science, numeracy and literacy, the cornerstones of an education 100 years ago, are being usurped by what Yuval Noah Harari refers to as ‘the four Cs’ – critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity.

The World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs Report 2018 agrees that in the future “Human skills, such as creativity, originality and initiative, critical thinking, persuasion and negotiation will retain or increase their value”

In a future where artificial intelligence will replace jobs that are repetitive, automated or specialised, those of us who possess ‘human skills’ will flourish. In a future that is increasingly interconnected, those of us who connect the dots in new ways will succeed. Adaptability, open-mindedness and creativity are not just skills for strategists, they are survival skills for a new world order.

Perhaps, therefore, a better word for a generalist might be simply a ‘creative thinker’. Pablo Picasso, for one, recognized that generalism is another word for creativity when he described the world’s favourite generalist: “God is really just another artist. He invented the giraffe, the elephant and the cat. He has no real style. He just goes on trying new things”.

So, what does any of this have to do with being a strategist? Our role is to connect the dots to uncover new opportunities for creativity to make an impact. Our clients are specialists, and they hire us to bring our knowledge of other industries to their own.

What can someone who’s marketed washing powder their entire career learn from someone else who has been a planner in washing powder their entire career? And what could that same marketer learn from a planner who’s partnered with a luxury hotel chain, a global insurance provider and a purveyor of organic snacks? Maybe, something more.

So, to the countless smartarses who have deflated the generalist’s balloon of confidence with their “master of none” qualifier, they might do well to remember the second, less well-known part of that famous phrase:

A jack of all trades is a master of none, but oftentimes better than a master of one. 

This piece was written for WARC after a debate hosted by the Singapore Strategy Group. See the article here full report here:

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