In Praise of Generalists


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In his article In Praise of Generalists, Anthony Townsend (Institute for the Future) touches on why the time for elevating  “specialists” has passed. We need what he calls “transdisciplinary thinking” to tackle the future, and ongoing conversations which include, but are not restricted to, specialists.

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In Praise of Generalists

The last decade has been witness to the rise of the geeks. What began as a glorification of tech entrepreneurs making it big from the rise of the IT industry, has now permeated every aspect of society. Single-minded obsession with obscure endeavors, hyper-specialization, and technical nerdery of all sorts are glorified across the board.

But is such geekery really a good way to foster talent? The most pressing problems in science and technology, and more broadly in business and the economy, don’t lend themselves readily to specialists’ solutions. They require not just inter-discipinary teamwork to make progress, but transdisciplinary thinking – literally, we need people that can have conversations between disciplinary appraoches to problems inside their own head. In fact, you could argue that most of the gridlock around big problems like global warming, health care, and so on, stem from the inability of narrow specialist and interest groups to speak each others’ language, translate heuristics and integrate complex concepts and data. They’re too specialized, having become more and more isolated in focused communities, thanks to the web.

Let’s take a classic example of a geek to unpack this dilemma. London taxi drivers are uber-geeks, memorizing the entire fractal street network of one of the world’s biggest cities. In fact, they are so specialized that scientists have measured distinct enlargement of a portion of the hippocampus in their brains. Yet another recent study has found that the widespread use of GPS technology for personal navigation is reducing the ability of everyday people to find their way at all. On the one hand, the super geeks who can DIY, on the other, lost sheep perpetually dependent on assistive technology.

Before you cry foul, and lament the loss of another basic human ability, let me ask you – are you lamenting the ability to do tell time from environmental cues (destroyed by clocks), to do complex mathematical calculations in your mind (destroyed by calculators), or to remember facts (destroyed by Google)? No, because each of these technologies, to which we’ve outsourced some basic functions, have allowed us to give up some geekery in order to spend our precious brain cycles on more broad, integrative thinking. (Of course, the more worrying part of the study, that atrophy of the hippocampus might be tied to dementia, should not be overlooked. But it’s a very preliminary finding)

I have alternated back and forth between geekery and generalism in my own career. I can say without a doubt, I’m happier and more productive, and more relevant, when I’m a generalist.

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What are Scenarios?


A scenario is a story that describes a possible future. It identifies some
significant events, the main actors and their motivations, and it conveys how the
world functions. Building and using scenarios can help people explore what the
future might look like and the likely challenges of living in it.
— Scenarios: an explorer’s guide, Shell International

SCENARIOS ON THE FUTURE OF CANADA-DPRK RELATIONS


CENARIOS ON THE FUTURE OF CANADA-DPRK RELATIONS Erich Weingartner, CanKor Editor, 15 October 2009
World class experts on North Korea have joined minds in the inaugural Virtual ThinkNet (VTN) Scenarios project. Using email and an internet-based virtual platform, more than 50 Canadian and international DPRK watchers, scholars, civil servants and NGO representatives have contributed to a process that is culminating in the creation of narratives that project four possible futures in Canada-DPRK relations within the next decade.
Grappling with the focal question, “Will Canada play a significant role in encouraging the DPRK towards regional peace and stability by
2020?” participants listed 78 major and minor “forces” that drive Canada’s role in the region. The most critical and uncertain of these drivers were then positioned on a matrix that produced parameters for four distinct futures. The four scenarios whose narratives are currently being written will be fed into a face-to-face consultation in Toronto on November 11th. At the day-long meeting, participants will formulate strategic options for Canadian policy at both governmental and civil society levels.
“Over the summer, our ‘Brain Trust’ of North Korea experts has been defining the place of Canada in a very complex region. Although Canada is one of the small number of Western countries that has diplomatic relations with the DPRK, it has so far played a very limited role, loosely defined as a ‘not-business-as-usual’ policy,” says VTN scenarios leader Miranda Weingartner. “Opinions are divided as to whether Canada should, or even could, play a more active role. While our Government has decided to take a back seat to the leadership of the USA in the region, some Canadian NGOs have urged a more active role, providing humanitarian assistance, English language education for North Koreans, and maintaining people-to-people contacts.”
Weingartner stresses that those involved in the Virtual ThinkNet’s ‘Brain Trust’ straddle a variety of professions and political allegiances. Some members are in the public service, and therefore participate anonymously.
“This is what differentiates our think-NET from the many think-TANKs out there,” says Weingartner. “Think tanks usually operate from an ideologically fixed position. Because of the inclusiveness of our Brain Trust, our scenarios promise to possess an authenticity that is unique.”
Sponsored by the Toronto-based Canada-DPR Korea Association, the project is managed by Weingartner Consulting, publishers of the CanKor newsletter. Weingartner Consulting’s Virtual ThinkNet hosts scenarios-building processes that mimic methodologies generally used in weeklong face-to-face workshops. With the help of Canadian tech-marketing company the SomaGroup, the VTN uses the depth and breadth of innovative social networking technologies to achieve a fertile collaboration that is accessible to busy professionals.Erich Weingartner, CanKor Editor, 15 October 2009

World class experts on North Korea have joined minds in the inaugural Virtual ThinkNet (VTN) Scenarios project. Using email and an internet-based virtual platform, more than 50 Canadian and international DPRK watchers, scholars, civil servants and NGO representatives have contributed to a process that is culminating in the creation of narratives that project four possible futures in Canada-DPRK relations within the next decade.

Grappling with the focal question, “Will Canada play a significant role in encouraging the DPRK towards regional peace and stability by 2020?” participants listed 78 major and minor “forces” that drive Canada’s role in the region. The most critical and uncertain of these drivers were then positioned on a matrix that produced parameters for four distinct futures. The four scenarios whose narratives are currently being written will be fed into a face-to-face consultation in Toronto on November 11th. At the day-long meeting, participants will formulate strategic options for Canadian policy at both governmental and civil society levels.

“Over the summer, our ‘Brain Trust’ of North Korea experts has been defining the place of Canada in a very complex region. Although Canada is one of the small number of Western countries that has diplomatic relations with the DPRK, it has so far played a very limited role, loosely defined as a ‘not-business-as-usual’ policy,” says VTN scenarios leader Miranda Weingartner. “Opinions are divided as to whether Canada should, or even could, play a more active role. While our Government has decided to take a back seat to the leadership of the USA in the region, some Canadian NGOs have urged a more active role, providing humanitarian assistance, English language education for North Koreans, and maintaining people-to-people contacts.”

Weingartner stresses that those involved in the Virtual ThinkNet’s ‘Brain Trust’ straddle a variety of professions and political allegiances. Some members are in the public service, and therefore participate anonymously.

“This is what differentiates our think-NET from the many think-TANKs out there,” says Weingartner. “Think tanks usually operate from an ideologically fixed position. Because of the inclusiveness of our Brain Trust, our scenarios promise to possess an authenticity that is unique.”

Sponsored by the Toronto-based Canada-DPR Korea Association, the project is managed by Weingartner Consulting, publishers of the CanKor newsletter. Weingartner Consulting’s Virtual ThinkNet hosts scenarios-building processes that mimic methodologies generally used in weeklong face-to-face workshops. With the help of Canadian tech-marketing company the SomaGroup, the VTN uses the depth and breadth of innovative social networking technologies to achieve a fertile collaboration that is accessible to busy professionals.

The Fiction Effect: Plausible Scenarios that Shock


Written by Mark Vickers from i4cp on July 17, 2009

Scenario planning is faddish for a lot of companies, like shorter hair or diagonal tie patterns or wearing watches. It’s usually the bad times that bring out the scenario planners.

“It’s sort of like flood insurance,” Michael Raynor, a Deloitte Consulting LLP corporate-strategy expert, recently told the Wall Street Journal. “Everybody runs out and buys flood insurance the year after the flood” (Tuna, 2009).

It’s human nature, of course, to start planning harder for the unexpected only after the unexpected has happened. That occurred after 9/11 and it’s happening again in the wake of the harsh global recession.

People are simply stunned by major events. I call it the “Fiction Effect.” One day you’re plugging along, living your life, working your job, maybe a bit bored by mundane affairs. The next day, something happens that you can barely believe, something that is supposed to occur only in the realm of fiction or long-gone history rather than in your current all-too-real life.

The Fiction Effect gives you a jolt, opening you and others up to the fact that life really is stranger than fiction in many cases. Hijacked jet planes flying into the Twin Towers? The almost instant demise of several great financial institutions? The sheer immensity of the Maddoff Ponzi scheme?

Yes, strange and threatening things happen, as do strange and great things. Tampa Bay Rays in the World Series? Only in fiction. The election of a black U.S. president? Only in some far off future.

But no, they are realities, and pretty soon they don’t seem strange at all. They’re just another part of the landscape, like cell phones or cloning or water on Mars.

What scenario planning can do is prepare you for the strangeness of reality, allowing your organization to react quickly to possible and often plausible scenarios while others are still stunned into inaction or scattering in panic.

For those who aren’t very familiar with business scenarios, the Scenario 101 introduction goes something like this: Scenario planning has been used since the 1940s by parts of the U.S. military and was made famous by Royal Dutch Shell in the 1970s, when the scenario-creating corporation was reportedly able to react better than its competitors to the 1973 oil shock.

Since then, many companies have used scenarios, with a Bain & Company study finding that about 70% of executives said they used scenarios in 2002 (Tuna, 2009).

Scenarios are, in essence, alternative stories about the future. Shell, which is an i4cp member company, notes that scenarios “identify some significant events, main actors and their motivations, and they convey how the world functions.” Shell also notes that these stories are not linear or mechanical forecasts. Rather, scenarios “recognize that people hold beliefs and make choices that can lead down different paths. They reveal different possible futures that are plausible and challenging.”

i4cp and its predecessor, the Human Resource Institute, has written scenarios for many years – whether they were in vogue at the time or not – integrating them into each of its knowledge centers and highlight reports. These scenarios can be used by companies to look at a wide range of human capital issues.

But, although such “off-the-shelf” scenarios can be helpful, scenarios are best when they’re the result of a group interaction within organizations, such as operating managers and planners working together. As a group, such a team identifies a topic of interest and then tries to isolate the driving forces that influence that topic. Those forces are grouped together so organizations can see the patterns, and often the drivers are ranked by their potential impact and certainty.

There are different kinds of scenarios, such as inductive, deductive, incremental and normative. Without getting too deep into the scenario weeds, it’s often best to start with deductive scenarios, which rely on a four-quadrant “payoff” table. Let’s say, for example, that something shocking but still fairly plausible happens in 2012, such as a major war between India and Pakistan that China is drawn into. What happens to your organization if it has outsourced huge components of its businesses to one or all of these nations? How could the company react in a timely and effective way to continue meeting the needs of customers?

Now let’s say that, during that same period, your company loses several crucial patents and has no other blockbuster innovations to take their place. How would it survive, especially if certain manufacturing or research operations abroad suddenly stopped producing due to geopolitical instability?

In this particular scenario – which involves Asian instability plus revenue declines – some organizations could find themselves in serious danger of collapse. Such a scenario is not created to predict such dire events, but simply to help business leaders consider what would ensue if such events were to occur. By thinking through the possibilities, an organization might have two advantages. First, it would be less likely to be paralyzed by the Fiction Effect and therefore better able to react quickly to the realities of the situation. Second, it would be more likely to have made contingency plans in the first place, ones that ameliorate the crisis.

There are many examples of scenarios, of course, Some assume good news, others bad news, and others ambiguous news. But what they all have in common is that they help managers and planners question their assumptions about the future, preparing themselves and their organizations for the myriad events that are stranger than fiction.

Documents used in the preparation of this TrendWatcher include the following:

  • Shell (2009). Looking ahead: Scenarios.
  • Tuna, Cari (2009, July 6). Pendulum is swinging back on ‘scenario planning.’ Wall Street Journal.
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