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August 20, 2007 » 12:15 pm

Generalist or Specialist?

Dave Gray shared one of his latest visualizations, which differentiates between specialists and generalists:    (MIT)

http://farm2.static.flickr.com/1408/1180687751_72509dc2cb.jpg    (MIU)

I like the aesthetic of the diagram (which is how I feel about most of Dave’s work), but when I first looked at it, I couldn’t help but think that it was off somehow. After pondering, I realized my problem had less to do with the diagram than it did with how how he frames his conclusions:    (MIV)

  • “Generalists are best when DEFINING the problem or goal.    (MIW)
  • “Specialists are best used when SOLVING the problem or EXECUTING THE PLAN.    (MIX)

The distinction between a specialist and a generalist isn’t the ability to state versus solve a problem. The distinction has to do with the kind of problems they are good at addressing. Generalists are good at defining general or, more accurately, system problems, which, by definition, cannot be solved by a single person. But a generalist isn’t necessarily good at defining specialized problems.    (MIY)

The diagram itself is very good. I like the dimensionality of it, which jives with our traditional notions of horizontal versus vertical thinking (or breadth versus depth of knowledge). I also like the network depiction of the generalists’ plane, which emphasizes the systems view.    (MIZ)

However, there are some important nuances missing. First, because of the colors in the horizontal plane as well as the top-down view, the horizontal plane seems to hold greater importance than the vertical plane. That’s misleading. A true systems thinker views a problem from all three dimensions, not just one plane. I think adding some color to the vertical lines would help alleviate this.    (MJ0)

Second, while I like the fact that the vertical plane depicts mostly linear problems, I think these planes should show some network characteristics. This would also help emphasize the three dimensionality of the entire space, and the need for generalists and specialists to collaborate.    (MJ1)

Finally, while I have plenty of nitpicks, I wouldn’t have thought deeply about these nuances in the first place if the diagram hadn’t helped clarify my thinking. It’s yet another demonstration of the power of Visual Thinking and of Dave’s skill at facilitating it.    (MJ2)

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