I have always been something of a generalist. Arguably, it’s one of the fundamental traits of project managers, and that is the foundation of much of my career. Project managers are the ultimate generalists; they need to manage work and lead teams with far more expertise than they themselves have, and still find the confidence to know that they have a role to play and value to bring to the exercise.
That can be a difficult proposition to reconcile, particularly at the outset. Being a generalist means not just having a breadth of subjects of which you have passing familiarity. It also means being comfortable with what you don’t know, and the limits of your understanding. Managing complex, difficult and messy projects with many moving parts, complicated interdependencies and different perspectives and viewpoints on the way forward is difficult at the best of times. Facilitating and navigating those discussions when you cannot claim expertise to everything being explored is an entirely different proposition.
Your job in this situation is to coordinate the involvement and input of those who do have the expertise that you need. They very likely have strong views and often stridently expressed opinions on the way forward that aligns with their particular domain of knowledge. What you need to do is work across those domains and synthesize those perspectives into something that makes sense. You must find the answer that delivers the greatest value in advancing the project and solving the problem, working across this input.
What this essentially involves is tapping into the deep expertise that others bring, while maintaining a view of the purpose you are working towards and the principles that frame an effective solution. Not only that, you need to advocate that approach broadly; not just to the team that you lead, but to the various other sponsors, stakeholders and sidelined observers who will nonetheless not be shy about sharing an opinion. You are promoting an approach that integrates the viewpoints of others, drawing on expertise you have collected from your team but do not necessarily hold yourself.
You can start to get a sense of why this is difficult. For starters, there is a degree of trust required in canvassing and securing input from your team. Because you don’t have the expertise to judge the veracity of what you are being told, you are relying on your team members to guide and educate you. There are strategies to manage this, of course, A significant one is triangulation, getting multiple perspectives on the same question, and evaluating the degree to which you get similar answers from similar experts. Yes, this is time consuming. It is also invaluable. “Trust, but verify,” was a principle I was raised on from a very early age.
There is a separate challenge in simply having the confidence to consult, distill and act. Impostor syndrome is real. I would hazard a guess that generalists—or those that feel they are employed beyond their skillset—are more susceptible to this phenomenon than most. The core of impostor syndrome is a belief that any accomplishment is unearned, that it is a product of luck rather than skill. When you are consciously working in areas that you are less than expert in, where you know you have insufficient expertise, it can be easy to take this to heart. I would argue that generalists are prone to impostor syndrome, specifically because they know they do not—and cannot—have sufficient expertise in all of the areas for which they are responsible.
Moving past this, then, is a significant accomplishment. Being able to function—and do so confidently—while working in fields that you are not expert in is not something that is easy to sustain. It is here that I don’t think that generalists get enough credit. It would be all too easy to tap out and signal that you don’t have the knowledge or understanding to provide guidance. To keep moving forward, to actively seek insight from others, and to synthesize that input to build viable solutions is a rare talent.
I have increasingly found myself in situations where I’ve been called on to do exactly that. Leading a team of astrophysicists in planning a decade-long effort to build a replacement control system for a radio telescope that would exponentially increase its resolution and capability. Guiding the planning of a program to design high-pressure gas storage cylinders that would make hydrogen-fuelled vehicles viable. Designing a business case to allow an innovative manufacturer to offset a critical risk to their operations. Facilitating the development of strategic plans in a myriad of industries and sectors, from the public to the private.
Each of these engagements involved significant immersion in a subject area with which—at least at the start—I was broadly unfamiliar. Each activity involved diving into identification of potential alternatives and approaches and investigation of impact and viability of each of those options. Doing so successfully involved and depended upon access and input from individual experts that could provide insights, answer questions and test options.
What I have come to appreciate is that this shared collaboration has been essential to successfully approaching each situation. My role was making connections, seeing options, maintaining a clear sense of the problem and holding fast to essential principles of what a good solution looked like. Those I collaborated with brought the deep understanding of their particular perspective. Sometimes that was technical in nature, sometimes it was operational and sometimes it was about the culture and character of people and organizations. The process is about building a common picture of conceptual possibilities, and practical strategies to implement the result.
In these situations, there is an argument to be made that it actually helps to come in with only a generalist understanding of the problem at hand. I don’t come with pre-formed notions of what is possible and what is not. I don’t bring a bias to how the problem needs to be solved, or give preferential focus to one view or perspective of the situation. My approach is—and has to be—inherently collaborative, in that success intrinsically depends on the insights and input of others. A final but not inconsiderable part of this is that not having expertise in the topic at hand gives me license to ask stupid questions (or at least, very straightforward ones). Many times, those questions surface important principles or perspectives that would otherwise get overlooked on the way to finding a solution.
I used to think being a generalist meant knowing a little about a lot, but not really specializing in anything. The expression, “a mile wide and an inch deep,” is often use to frame what this looks like in reality. Also common is the saying, “jack of all trades, master of none.” That’s not far off of the formal definition of generalist; Merriam-Webster describes it as, “one whose skills, interests or habits are varied or unspecialized.”
That definition is a thought-provoking take on the subject, and not necessarily a constructive one. Read uncharitably, it describes someone either all over the map or not necessarily relevant. The interesting thing about that take is it highlights some biases about how we view roles and work. There is a broad perception that consistency is important (and therefore variety and varied interests or habits are undesirable or unwelcome). There is equally a perception that specialist skills are valued and valuable (and that to be unspecialized is common, interchangable and not particularly expensive).
I’d like to offer a different viewpoint, one that amplifies what it means to be a generalist over being a specialist. Specialist expertise is about deep understanding in a given subject or discipline. The deeper and more nuanced the understanding, the greater the expertise. Taken to its logical conclusion, extreme expertise involves mapping and knowing the full extent of the rabbit hole, every niche, nook and cranny, down to a molecular level. That profound level of understanding is rare; in any given discipline, there may be a couple of dozen people in the world that might measure up to that expectation. But most are comfortable navigating a significant proportion of the rabbit hole, with a solid understanding of its twists, turns and tributaries.
Being a generalist is its own expertise. But where specialist expertise is about depth of knowledge of a subject or discipline, generalist expertise is about breadth of process. Not process as a defined structure and path to follow, but process as its own domain of knowledge and functioning. There is no universal framework of being a generalist (any more than, once you have the essential foundations of understanding, there is a framework to being a specialist). There is no one way of acting as a generalist, nor should there be. That would presume that there was a formulaic way of operating that can universally applied. As I have long avowed, the right answer depends; it is subject to situation, circumstance, context and culture.
The effective generalist offers a breadth of perspectives of approaches and practices that can be applied in a variety of situations, regardless of subject or context. The role of generalist is to weave possible practice together with probable approach in a way that makes sense for the particular problem being wrestled with. It’s the ability to listen to several different people in the room, all talking about the same theoretical situation, and understand where they are actually saying different things. It’s also the ability to highlight those differences, to reflect them back to the group, and to synthesize them in a way that builds from individual to common understanding. It is taking nuance and depth of everything that you have heard, and being able to distill it down to an understandable and accessible model of, “What I have heard you all saying is this,” that the group welcomes and embraces.
There is a symbiotic relationship between generalist and specialist that is not always recognized, and not always appreciated. We live in a world that values specialist expertise (hence the value judgements around the definition of generalist). The presumption is that all problems can be solved with enough expertise; they just require the right expert with the appropriate differentiation of knowledge that allows them to see and know and fix. The reality is that solving complex and difficult problems requires not differentiation but integration. It needs listening across multiple experts, seeking, probing, exploring and politely constructively challenging, to weave together a picture of what is going on and find within that view a path forward that can be followed.
Building effective generalists is neither easy nor is it straightforward. There is no defined curriculum that, if followed, will graduate a confident, fluid, flexible generalist able to be deployed in different settings to provide the integrating glue that specialist experts don’t know they are missing. That notion sounds strange even to me as I write that sentence. Nonetheless, that is what we need more of. It is a skillset that is missing from too many conversations, leading to solutions that are very often ineffective, inappropriate or insufficient. We need to recognize the integration role that generalists offer. We need to embrace the role, advocate for it to be performed, identify those who can perform it well, and make space for them at the table.
Generalists aren’t the solution in and of themselves. They are not a replacement for expertise; they are a supplement to it. They are the source of curiousity, connection, experimentation and exploration that holds the space for the experts and gives each of them room to be themselves. Generalist expertise provides the framework to examine the component parts and figure out how to bring them together in a way that makes sense in that moment at that time for that problem.