Generalists and specialists are needed in all organisations and in most complex situations. However they couldn’t be more different and work in different ways.
For instance, generalists create maps, like the wonderful London tube map, to make connections, chart routes or lines of enquiry. Whereas specialists build hierarchies, that tend to have more linear branch (or root) like structures, like the figure on the left.
If a node fails in a map, i.e. a station is closed, it often doesn’t usually matter critically, at least if it’s not on the periphery. There is still a different way to navigate around. Therefore generalists are interested in the bigger system rather than the individual components.
However if a node fails in a hierarchy, it can knock out the whole branch or even the whole system. Therefore, individual components or nodes are critical for the specialist.
As a general principal, as we become more connected and distributed I believe we need more maps at different levels. This is a complex business and there is still a long way to go to make these as useable as a tube map.
To some extent I think an output of our Connect projects is to map the respective spaces we are operating in. And it’s worth considering both maps and hierarchies when facilitating collaboration.
As a map geek (let’s face it – who isn’t?) I’d love to get any links to useful or beautiful (or both) maps that we can learn from.
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Some of my favourites’ below. As a generalist I agree with your post Roland and mapping is one way I deal with complexity:
i think perhaps a useful analogy would be with the scale of the map rather than the type – a gernealist is looking at a wide area but at a higher scale – whilst a specialist is looking at a lower scale and is therefore able to see the detail, but only of a small area.
The expression ‘beign able to see the wood for the trees’ also springs to mind here!
But i guess i am saying we need generalists and specialists to get where we want to go. To strecth the analogy further – if you are trying to get all the way across london, one page of an A-Z is no good – you need to be able to see the whole of the city. But, once you get to the area of your destination, you do need that detailed page or you will be wondering around aimlessly unable to find the street you are looking for(am sure we’ve all done that!)
If you like maps and graphs you will absolutely love this site “Visual Complexity”:
I forgot to reference the book that inspired this post, whish was Marks and Meaning by David Gray which I can recommend and has a great chart on specialists verses generalists on page 168. Sorry I can’t reproduce here but the book is available from http://www.lulu.com/content/3252489
Thanks Brendan and Ken for the links which are great, the visual complexity one in particular.
Rachel I like your tube map verses AtoZ analogy too.
To be continued…
I am not so sure that generalists create networks and specialists create hierarchies. Just take a look at the work of Fleming & Marx on innovation networks and you will see that specialists create just as many, if not more networks than generalists. It all depends upon the context and the brokering tendencies of the person.
But I do agree with you entirely that we need people who are both generalists and specialists to drive innovation. I blogged about this a while back in response to other posts by David Armano, John Hagel & Michael Mouboussin.
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Thank you for your kind comments. I’d like to point you and your readers to the diagram you mention which is on my photostream here.
Oops. It appears my html is working. Here’s a link to the diagram:
Roland. I love your points (above). May I quote you in the next version of Marks and Meaning?
Thanks Dave – abosolutely. Please do 🙂 R
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