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Rethinking Work Itself: Why Hiring More Generalists Can Future-Proof Your Organization

Updated: Feb 2, 2022

To say work is changing would be an understatement. What's more, the rate of change is increasing at such a rapid pace it's become nearly impossible to predict how careers will even be defined in five years time, let alone how workplaces themselves will need to be organized. Technological innovation is the vehicle for this change, with artificial intelligence in the driver's seat.* This article is intended to be a quick introduction on why, after 100+ years of pro-specialist hiring practices, future-focused companies are [finally] seeking-out generalists as a first choice for new opportunities (hint: they're silo-connecting creative problem solvers with diverse perspectives, innate curiosity, and growth mindsets who like working on teams).

As tempting as it is to this author to start by exploring the meta-societal origins and evolution of work itself, from the earliest hunter-gather generalists and later agrarian-trader specialists, all the way through the Renaissance, colonial mercantilism, free market capitalism, and Frederick Taylor's 1911 treatise Principles of Scientific Management (the inspiration for Henry Ford's assembly line and office cubicle farms), it doesn't really matter– "past performance is not an indicator of future results." Where are we going and why? Today's blistering speed of technological change, the exponential growth of network organizations, and the overall sense of complexity (and uncertainty) compared to earlier ways and times of doing business have rendered even last year's organizational design (and career logic) as potentially antiquated. This isn't just faxes becoming emails, or working remotely during COVID-19, this is the commoditization of information and services in a global economy based primarily on those two things! (Look for future articles about the progression of economic value shifting upward from services to experiences and transformations). To be resilient going forward, organizations will need people who thrive in the ambiguous, revel in change, and bring more than just a hammer ("when the only tool you have is a hammer, everything is a nail"); they will need generalists (to be managed by expert-generalists).

Vikram Mansharamani, Harvard lecturer and author of Think for Yourself: Restoring Common Sense in an Age of Experts and Artificial Intelligence, puts it as, "breadth of perspective and the ability to connect the proverbial dots (the domain of generalists) is likely to be as important as depth of expertise and the ability to generate dots (the domain of specialists)...The skill of generating dots is losing value. The key skill of the future is, well, not quite a skill; it's an approach, a philosophy, and a way of thinking– and it's critical you adopt it as soon as you're able." Hiring for this generalist approach is a make-or-break proposition when future-proofing your organization; pick the Swiss Army knife.

The key skill of the future is, well, not quite a skill; it's an approach, a philosophy, and a way of thinking.

This is great news for those leaders and employees wanting more meaningful, fulfilling work (the overwhelming vast majority; more on this in future articles, too)– we evolved to be problem-solving generalists that work well together; it's how we survived. Only recently in our societal development have we been forced to narrowly specialize, with each specialist contributing to a generalist civilization. But, DNA doesn't change as quickly as societies, and this is why the desire for meaningful work that balances integrity with the self, unity with others, expressing full potential, and service to others– rooted in some personal inspiration that hopefully aligns with an organization's mission (more on this in future articles about the Map of Meaning)– pairs perfectly with the rise of the generalist. Let the technology do the heavy lifting, hard calculations, and repetitive tasks; de-specialize our org charts; hire for passion; and create high-performing, long-lasting, fully-engaged collaborative cultures by design.

(Aside: The trades still benefit from identity work that is associated with higher levels of self-perceived meaning (I'm the plumber, the baker, the farmer, the math teacher), but as our population grows and new efficiencies create redundancies in our free market economy, there won't be enough of those positions to go around and be financially feasible as one's sole source of income. Missions and just causes, however, will continue to motivate people, and the organization of the future will find ways to monetize the advancement of their worthwhile cause while creating generalist-friendly workplaces and meaningful brands.)

One of the most forward-looking companies of our time, Google, already looks for multi-functional experience when hiring. Lisa Stern Hayes, one of Google's top recruiters, said the company values problem-solvers who have "a general cognitive ability" over job-specific knowledge. "Think about how quickly Google evolves. If you just hire someone to do one specific job, but then our company needs change, we need to be rest assured that the person is going to find something else to do at Google. That comes back to hiring smart generalists."

As a quick but related tangent, #1 NYT best-selling author Jim Collins wrote of similar generalist qualities in Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap...and Others Don't. He gave an example of Nucor Steel, a fledgling steel manufacturer that eventually grew to the largest, most profitable, highest-paying firm in its industry. The credited secret? Farmers. The CEO grew up in a farming family and knew first-hand of the "farmer's work ethic", so they set-up mills in regions known for farming (far outside the typical steel production areas): it's a lot easier to teach a farmer how to make steel than to teach a farmer's work ethic to someone who doesn't have it in the first place. Collins noted, "[these were] places full of real farmers who go to bed early, rise at dawn, and get right to work without fanfare. 'Gotta milk the cows' and 'Gonna plow the north forty before noon' translated easily into 'Gotta roll some sheet steel' and "Gonna cast forty tons before lunch". In the earlier Google example, having a generalist skillset and approach translated easily from one department to the next, which in the long-run was far more valuable to a high-performing culture without the turnover and loss of insight, a lot less expensive than hiring and onboarding someone else, and uncommonly satisfying to the retained employee given an opportunity to learn new things, apply themself, stay curious, and help advance a cause they love (Google's mission).

David Epstein, NYT best-selling author of Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, argues that human beings' greatest strength is the ability to think broadly. Epstein says specializing works great in "kind learning environments" or where patterns repeat and feedback is accurate and constant (think: chess). However, most organizations spend most of their time in what Epstein calls "wicked environments", which have less repetition, more randomness, usually no feedback, and rapid changes (think: your business). In this new-normal reality, becoming (and hiring) a generalist that can embrace and utilize varied experiences and perspectives is more necessary and valuable than ever.

Organizational designers, business owners, and nonprofit boards must ensure they create truly future-focused, meaning-centered workplaces built around learning, collaboration, and creative expression in the advancement of a shared just cause... staffed predominantly by generalists. (NB: Future articles will discuss how this fits-in with traditional, coworking, work-from home, and hybrid worksite models across multiple industries.)

*Please do yourself a favor and set aside the time to read these two eye-opening blog articles (with stick figures and graphs) from Tim Urban about the coming artificial intelligence revolution. They're long, they're entertaining, they're jaw-dropping, they're awesome: Part 1 and Part 2.

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