Friday, December 02, 2005

The Need for Integrated Thinking – Commentary and Thoughts on " The Creative Generalist"

It's not easy to get through a week without coming in contact with a specialist of some sort. If you're an entrepreneur or work for a large company you might need the help of a web designer or will likely call on an IT person to fix a computer or networking problem. At any given high school, you might see a place divided into departments which specialize in one of the areas of education. M.D's specialize as do some dentists and the pattern extends into the arts as some painters, musicians and writers explore and develop one area to make it theirs.

Expert tutors, history teachers who focus on 18th Century Russia, podiatrists and cosmetic dentistry specialists all provide a valuable service. But, is there an opposite? Is there an area dedicated to the the "space between" or a way to connect otherwise unconnected areas? Is it even important to have someone in between the areas to connect the dots? Is there anything of value in “there” and if so, what would we call this? Author Steve Hardy has a name for it, as well as a website, blog and article recently published on the website. It is called The Creative Generalist.

A creative generalist might be a blog writer, author, teacher, business consultant or, more importantly, someone who is not easily described or categorized. People in such positions should take note because this is now one of several articles and books on the importance of conceptual thinking and the need for people with this skill. One can abstract from Hardy’s writing that a creative generalist has the ability to see a larger picture, one that niche specialists may be missing. And it is in this broad area in between specialties where, according to Hardy, we get some of our best ideas. Such ideas, he says, “are the product of divergent thinking, lateral steps and questions dealing with completely unrelated notions. They “come from a kaleidoscopic grab bag of other ideas – whether ancient, recent, calculated or silly.”

Broad and specialized thinking are both important and should exist and inhabit the same organizations. What I think articles like this promote, though, is a meeting place between the two camps – a place where ideas, people and projects can take new shape and direction. In other words, thoughts, ideas, departments and specialties are great in and of themselves, but are greater and offer more potential if someone were there, maybe as a conduit to join things together. If this movement continues, it may not be unusual to see more conduit-like positions opening up in companies and organizations.

The need for interconnectedness stretches across many professions. Hardy mentions urban design, marketing campaigns, environmental policy and disaster response as areas where integrated thinking is needed. The 911 Commission Report and commentary on the U.S. Government’s response (at all levels) to Hurricane Katrina all seem to say something about a general lack of integration in our thinking.

At the micro level, one might consider the architecture of a school – how some teachers and departments feel alienated. A creative generalist might think to put the theater, music, media or library at the center of a building as these are important centers of creative energy – necessary to sustaining an optimistic mood for learning. People having to pass by books, magazines, multi-media displays or vibrant music will help carry the curious or creative energy outward, easily creating a theme or fabric for the school. By not paying attention to subtle matters as teacher placement or building design, an otherwise great, energetic teacher could end up on the outskirts of a structure where they struggle to be heard. If you’re interested in the importance of building design in thinking, read Sylvia Nassar’s account of the Rand Corporate building and its importance to creative thinking and problem solving – in the book A Beautiful Mind. I also recommend reading about “connectors” in Malcolm Gladwell’s book The Tipping Point.

As a test, let’s apply these concepts to something outside the typical business or organization – to the production of a musical. I recently played in the pit orchestra for Beauty and the Beast and had the opportunity to make some observations. Like a technician in a company, the musician executes their part according to the specific instruction of the composer and under the guidance of the conductor. He or she follows an unwritten code of conduct - communicating sometimes with the section leader but rarely (especially if one is not the section leader) interacting directly with the conductor, and almost never with the composer. The composer runs a dialogue in his or her head, but rarely communicates his or her ideas with the technician. I guess that would depend on the creative preference of the composer. Sometimes, self-absorption and inner-dialogue work best for the creative person, so you can’t really blame the composer.

Most would agree that the hierarchy of musical performance is important to delivering the intent of the composer …. but what if we were to open this up a bit? Author and consultant Peter Drucker observed the dangers of the assembly line worker more than 50 years ago, noting that it was important to keep control of the organization by following objectives, but to allow creative latitude by the employees (see the November 19th issue of the Economist). Reduce someone to the role of assembly line worker, without the opportunity to add their thoughts or creativity, and one has a recipe for fatigue and burn out.

In the case of the musical, to play the notes without interaction with the actors, composer, or writer is frustrating to a conceptual thinker. It would seem strange to set up meetings so that all these folks could communicate at some level, but think of all the possibilities! Players communicating with their section leaders, section leaders meeting with other section leaders, conductors meeting with producers and the occasional actor conversing with the orchestra might just lead to a great, energetic merger of all things creative and lead to a dynamic, finely tuned production! This is probably happening in many places but I have to wonder about of all these minds and talent operating in isolation and what comes to mind is the problem of autocratic rule. The trains run on time, but what do you really have?

A debate about this concept, according to Hardy, is now going on in the business community – between a general and specialized approach. The answer calls for conceptual thinkers who can see the value in both sides and ways they can integrate.

Here’s how that might work. Some individuals specialize in their departments to refine or explore something. They deliver their information to a “hub” where it is mixed and molded with what other specialists have discovered. Proximity, architecture and flow of information are all important here. The generalists work in the hub to mix, create new ideas and move the company or organization forward.

Writers and comedians have been successfully using this methodology for centuries, merging ideas to form larger concepts. Who hasn’t heard a joke starting out something like “a Priest, Rabbi and farmer walk into a bar.” The listener is already smiling because he or she can’t wait to see the result of this weird combination. Politics (avoiding polarization), system design, attitudes and architecture all play key parts in keeping ideas headed towards the hub. And, if allowed to take root, this movement could have major implications. By being aware of the phenomenon and respecting people with a “creative generalist” talent to see the method through, real change can happen.

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