In defense of knowing things

I frequently advocate for generalists here and in other forums. I think generalists are incredibly important to every team. I think great generalists should often be hired over great specialists to run large teams, complex projects, or sprawling, fast-evolving organizations. I think they are undervalued in this hyper-specialized economy we accidentally built. This is my opinion. It is both well-informed and open to honest debate.

At the same time, I recognize we are at a period in history where, somehow, knowing things isn't taken as seriously as it used to be. It has become clear that certain people don't know the things they should know if they are to do the things they want to do. And many of these people don't think it matters - that real management is about hiring great people, facilitating the flow of ideas, communicating a message.

It's a problem. It isn't true. It's getting conflated with a real, legitimate debate about the skills and knowledge of people who lead and people who manage.

Do not confuse this problem with the generalist vs. specialist question. They are entirely different discussions. Generalists knows lots of things. Specialists know lots of things. They are different things, but they are still things.

Great generalists know things. They know a lot of things. They know things about what they are about to be doing. They do not know every detail, but they know the basics and are reasonably deep in a few key areas.

They know a lot about things that are only vaguely related to what they are doing. This gives them a large pool of experience and metaphors to draw from. They understand cultural dynamics in different situations with lots of different people. They care about those dynamics. They have seen enough to be able to extract and understand nuance from most situations. They can handle diversity. They can handle and navigate through disagreement.

This is because they know things.

Some people don't know that many things. They are not generalists or specialists. They cannot pretend to be great managers. Great managers still know things. Many things. Enough things.

People who don't know things are just unqualified.

So what's my point? Regardless of what you want to do, know things. This current phase will not last and the world will once again belong to those with knowledge. Know a lot of things about a lot of areas. Know a lot of things about one or two areas. But know things. 

As Clay Shirky once said - age + paying attention = knows lots of things. Grow old and grow smart. Don't let someone with a pulpit who knows nothing change this.

Stephen Ronan

Ronan Consulting Group, 06907

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