Range, Generalists and Wicked Social Sector Problems

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For way too long, I harbored a secret shame: the fact that I’m a generalist in a world that is increasingly specialized. My shame was most acute when I worked as the deputy director of the post-secondary-education team at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. I had less than five months to help develop a $500 million initiative to double the number of students who graduate with some form of post-secondary credential or degree. All of my colleagues were brilliant specialists. How could I possibly add value for them?! My insecurity led me to focus on process but not on content, which was a lousy decision. I drove myself into the ground by staying up most nights until 2 am. More important, I failed to bring forward insights and analogies from other domains that could have helped my team.

If you’ve ever faced a similar dilemma, you might want to read the new book Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World. The author, David Epstein, presents strong evidence that generalists are just as important as specialists for solving wicked social-sector problems—and sometimes even more so. We can look at problems from new angles. We can bring new toolsets and problem-solving analogies. We’re good at remaining open-minded to contrary ideas and data that don’t conform to our preconceived notions.

I won’t subject you to a book report, but I think it might be helpful to generalists and specialists alike to highlight some of Epstein’s most important findings about why solving wicked problems requires both generalists and specialists working together.

Martian Tennis

Tiger Woods began his mastery of golf in exactly the way you’d expect, especially if you’re a fan of the “10,000 hours” theory: He found his life’s calling at age two, when he started swinging a club and getting lessons. However, Roger Federer took a very different path to mastery of tennis: He played a wide variety of sports, and his parents didn’t let him take tennis too seriously until he was a teen.

These radically different pathways are not surprising when you come to appreciate how different golf is from tennis. In golf, the key to mastery is repeating a small set of moves/stokes over and over and over again, and training your brain to organize complex patterns into familiar “chunks.” Tennis, in contrast, “is much more dynamic, with players adjusting to opponents every second, to surfaces, and sometimes to their own teammates.”

Even so, tennis is considered a “kind” problem compared the wicked challenges we confront in the social sector. “The world is not golf, and most of isn’t even tennis,” Epstein writes. Instead, the world is like Martian tennis: “You can see the players on the court with balls and rackets, but nobody has shared the rules. It is up to you to derive them, and they are subject to change without notice.”

Implications for Individuals

If you’re a generalist—someone who indulges broad curiosities but doesn’t have world-class expertise in any one thing—then you may already have what it takes to play “Martian tennis” well: the ability to apply “conceptual reasoning skills that can connect new ideas and work across contexts and to recognize “similarities in multiple domains or scenarios that seem to have little in common on the surface.”

But even if you’re not a generalist, these traits can be developed. For example, Epstein cites research by psychologist and political scientist Philip Tetlock, who has dedicated his career to studying the differences between those who are deep in one area and those who “know many little things.” Tetlock became famous for showing how abysmal most experts are at forecasting, often because they dismiss data points that don’t conform to their preexisting views. But when Tetlock and his team spent just a single hour helping these experts adopt a series of generalist, “outside view” habits, the experts improved their predictions dramatically.

Charles Darwin is a great model. Although he had a lifelong love of and deep training in geology, he brought a generalist’s curiosity and open mind to his wide-ranging research aboard the HMS Beagle. “He made a point of copying into his notes any fact or observation he encountered that ran contrary to a theory he was working on,” writes Epstein. “He relentlessly attacked his own ideas, dispensing with one model after another, until he arrived at a theory that fit the totality of the evidence.” Talk about a growth mindset!

Implications for Teams

When it comes to constructing teams to work on wicked problems, we all have a lot to learn from psychologist Kevin Dunbar, who embedded himself in a series of molecular-biology labs driving discovery in genetics and disease. The most innovative labs included scientists who were not all cut from the same professional cloth. They had a wide range of professional experiences that allowed them to see patterns and analogies that single-domain experts could not. Epstein calls these teams “Keplers by committee,” after the brilliant German astronomer Johannes Kepler, who used analogies from outside the field of astronomy to break through millennia of received wisdom.

A similar way to set your teams up for effective innovation is to think about dragonflies. “Dragonfly eyes are composed of tens of thousands of lenses, each with a different perspective, which are then synthesized in the dragonfly’s brain,” writes Epstein. It’s noteworthy that dragonflies’ multi-faceted eyes enable them to see the world in “ultra-multicolor”—a kaleidoscope of hues that go beyond anything humans can imagine.

Implications for Organizational Culture

When it comes to building a culture that’s good at playing Martian tennis, one key is “learning to drop your familiar tools.”

To illustrate a culture that was not good at doing dropping its tools, Epstein takes the reader inside the fateful decision process that led to the 1986 Challenger disaster. Senior engineers from the company that produced the shuttle’s rocket boosters had grave misgivings prior to the launch, based on their review of photographs from previous flights. But NASA’s culture allowed little room for dissenting intuition. In NASA’s “In God We Trust, All Others Bring Data” culture, a contractor’s qualitative photographic evidence just didn’t rate. NASA couldn’t drop their quantitative tools.

But some organizational cultures are great at both using their specialized tools and dropping them when the need arises. In these cultures, processes are not so sacred that they cannot be questioned, and sensemaking is valued over decision making. In the words of world-renowned smoke jumper Paul Gleason, “If I make a decision … I take pride in it, I tend to defend it and not listen to those who question it. If I make sense, then this is more dynamic and I listen and I can change it.” In these more-flexible, sensemaking cultures, senior managers lead by example and encourage people throughout the organization to be curious, ask questions, and push each other’s thinking. They are mindful that every program and process eventually becomes dated, even obsolete, and they must always remain open to learning and improvement.

Range Matters

I don’t buy the word “triumph” in Epstein’s subtitle “Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World.” It feels like his publisher was not willing to drop the familiar marketing tool of hyperbole. But I do come away with the sense that we generalists employ modes of thought that are extremely valuable to teams and organizations confronting wicked problems. We bring a mindset that’s similar to what Zen practitioners call Shoshin, or the “beginner’s mind”—a spirit of openness, curiosity, and humility. I think I speak for all my fellow generalists when I say we’re delighted to share this mindset with all the specialists of the world.