Since ceasing full time work, and starting my Charles 6.0 transformation, I have met a number of people (some more significantly advanced in years than my own) that continue employment on a consulting or contracting basis. It has sometimes been suggested that perhaps that’s something I would like to do. Quite apart from being pretty fully occupied without having any work-like obligations, one reflection on this has been that these people normally have a highly specific and singular expertise that is valued in the marketplace, such as database programming, construction engineering or town planning. The world of the consultant contractor is the world of the dedicated specialist. Quite reasonably most clients are looking for someone to undertake a specific task with well-defined outcomes – that way they know they will get at least an approximation of what they are paying for.
At various times during my working life I have worked as a self-employed consultant/contractor. To be completely frank I’ve never really been all that good at it. While I easily discharged the usually IT related tasks (such as application coding or database design) entrusted to me by various clients, I generally wanted to do more and often found the focused, repetitive aspect of the work they wanted me to specialise in frustrating and somewhat unfulfilling – when I’ve done something once I generally want to solve a different problem or acquire a fresh skill. The basic problem is that I’m interested in too many things.
Over the years I have come to understand that my real aptitude lies in helping to explore and define problems rather than to craft specific and technical solutions. However, usually people either feel they have a good handle on what needs doing or they lack the trust necessary to commission someone else to explore the problem space.
By and large there is also an inclination to ‘rush to solution’ – there is little appreciation of the art and skill of sitting with a problem long enough to understand its true demands and dimensions – which quite frequently are more or less different to the immediately presenting issues. Newsflash: that is not a proposition easily sold into a competitive market place – there are not many clients willing to pay someone to sit with a problem – they want them solved – ASAP!
I actually found the best place to practice that particular art is as a full time employee – oftentimes you can layered the necessary time spent sitting and thinking in among all the busy work that employers seem delighted to visit upon their workers. It is here you can cultivate the position of the generalist employee, easily deployed to various tasks but sometimes lampooned as the ‘jack of all trades that is master of none’. However as the Wikipedia entry about that saying notes, such an individual may be a master of integration, knowing enough from many learned trades and skills to be able to bring the disciplines together in a practical manner – what I would call a practical generalist.
Do this well, as I have at various stages, and you’ll find yourself in positions where the latitude to sit and think is extended significantly and can in fact become the accepted reason for your continued employment and contribution. At that point you have actually moved beyond simply being a simple, practical generalist and have started to engage with the role of the specialist generalist. This is someone who, rather than simply bringing together a variety of specialties, works in the world of the complex and the unknown, to define and appreciate problems and then to architect the shape of possible approaches and solutions.
One conceptual tool I have found useful to frame complexity in this context is what is commonly known as the ‘Stacey diagram’, so named after the British organizational theorist and Professor of Management Ralph Douglas Stacey. It has apparently been frequently adapted by other writers, as noted by Wikipedia often in ways not consistent with Stacey’s – to the point that apparently ‘he dropped the diagram and now argues against its use’. I am as guilty of appropriating and extending his original thinking as anyone! But I find it incredibly useful as framework for analysis and thought, and so I have sketched my own take on it, as illustrated here.
There are two axis to the diagram – Uncertainty and Disagreement:
- The horizontal x-axis is Uncertainty. When an Issue or decision is close to certainty it is because cause and effect linkages can be determined. This is usually the case when a very similar issue or decision has been made in the past, you can then use past experience to predict the outcome with a good degree of certainty. The other end of the certainty continuum is ‘far from certainty’. This is when the situation is unique or at least new to the decision makers. The cause and effect linkages are not clear. Using past experiences is not a good method to predict outcomes in the far from certainty range.
- The vertical y-axis is Disagreement. This measures the level of agreement about an issue or decision within the group, team or organisation. The degree of agreement on what should be done is an important factor in determining success.
I have found a very useful and succinct exploration of the Stacey matrix in relation to art of management and leadership, on this GP training resource archive. It maps various forms of decision making onto the matrix: Technical rational in the ‘simple’ region which is close to certainty and close to agreement – in terms of this blog the place for the specialist; Political for the area having a great deal of certainty about how outcomes are created but high levels of disagreement about which outcomes are desirable; Judgmental for the opposite set of issues with a high level of agreement but not much certainty as to the cause and effect linkages to create the desired outcomes.
Political and Judgmental for my purposes here are the realm of the ‘practical generalist’.
And then there is the Complexity zone which lies between these regions of traditional management approaches and chaos and is the natural home of the specialist generalist.
A few observations on what is required to work as this close to the edge of chaos – for it to be a ‘zone of opportunity’ …
- Be prepared to have absolutely no idea what you’re doing much of the time! The qualification is to be able to ascertain rapidly what needs to be known and to acquire that knowledge rapidly rather than to have a stored repertoire of specialist knowledge to hand.
- Work on the basis of principles rather than rules. I like this recent post I found on LinkedIn – ‘Burn Your Rule Book and Unlock the Power of Principles’, which observed “Principles, unlike rules, give people something unshakable to hold onto yet also the freedom to take independent decisions and actions to move toward a shared objective. Principles are directional, whereas rules are directive.” But a specialist generalist needs to be prepared for uncertainty even here: paradigm shifts in terms of the set of principles to be applied in a given space, to find space for innovation and novel principle to emerge.
- Be a systems thinker – I like the following illustration of the Tools of a System Thinker (attached to a tweet by @SYDIC_ITALIA Chapter Italiano della System Dynamics Society Internazionale – no further reference to acknowledge). However a specialist generalist must be an open-ended systems thinker, sensitive to emergent systems and to proto-systems at the edge of chaos. You cannot insist on systems at all costs, but need to utilise the insights systems thinking can generate. Be a network systems thinker, value the connections in the models you will perceive and generate as well as utilizing networks of skill and knowledge around the problem space.
It took me a long time to recognize and name myself as a ‘specialist’ generalist. It is a very difficult and demanding role, one that is difficult to sell and articulate, but one which can deliver dividends with multiplier effects well beyond the contributions of specialists and practical generalists, since it is the role that seeks innovation, requires agility and rewards resilience. That said, in the end with respect to my specialist computer-related skills, I decided to employ my abilities to my own ends rather than to try to meet the often poorly articulated and often contradictory needs of clients, be they internal or external. I must say I am similarly enjoying the freedom of Charles 6.0 to suit myself as to those problem domains and chaotic edges in which as a specialist generalist I choose to dwell.