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Years ago, perhaps the most popular type of television show was a variety program such as that offered by Ed Sullivan, Carol Burnett, and many others. Such shows offered comedy, music, magic, some drama, or whatever. Actually, the variety show was a throwback to what was called "Vaudeville" in the early part of the 20th century. People watched such programs for well rounded entertainment. But both Vaudeville and the variety shows are now extinct. Instead, we have a series of specialty shows on television for comedy, drama, music, game shows, journalism, and of course "reality" (although I don't think there is anything very realistic about such shows). We've even gone beyond this though, with whole television networks dedicated to a certain subject matter, such as the Comedy Channel, the History Channel, the Food Network, and so on. This got me thinking about how our culture has become a generation of specialists with a rather narrow point of view.

Whereas we used to believe in a well rounded education where we were taught to observe the world around us, we now tend to focus on a particular niche and overlook everything else, a sort of tunnel-vision whereby we expend all of our energy and interests and disregard everything else. For example, there are very few general auto mechanics anymore, most specialize in a particular type of car, such as German, Japanese, or particular brands. The medical profession is no different; I think I can count on one hand the number of General Practitioners I know, but there are many more specialists out there. I also see this in the Information Technology field where instead of general programmers, we see specialists whose niche is either a particular programming language or type of application to be written.

I guess we need specialists to concentrate on a particular type of problem, but we also need generalists who can see the big picture, but they are becoming few and far between. For example, it is becoming rare to find a manager who can think beyond the four walls of his department. If you specialize in a single area, you tend to believe it is of utmost importance and at the root of everything. For example, not long ago I was experiencing an unusual squeak in my car which I couldn't figure out. I took it to an auto mechanic friend who specialized in transmissions and he believed it to be a transmission problem. He recommended I replace the transmission which would have been a very expensive undertaking. Wanting a second opinion, I went to a general mechanic who told me there wasn't anything wrong with the transmission, but someone had put on my fan belt backwards which he replaced at a cost that was a great deal less than a transmission would have been. Whereas my specialist friend thought my problem was related to his area of expertise, the generalist looked at the overall automobile and found the problem.

Generalists to me are like orchestra conductors, they may not be proficient in each and every instrument, but they know how to bring them all together to make beautiful music. Doctors who are General Practitioners are the same; if they cannot solve the problem, they know who to call to fix something. But we need more generalists in business as well, which I always regarded as managers; if they can't solve the problem, they should be able to locate someone who can.

Years ago when I played football I won an award called the "Iron Man" for playing the most minutes on the field. A lot of guys kidded me about the name "Iron Man" (it does sound a little corny) but I looked at it with pride as it meant I played on more teams than anyone else and always knew where the game was heading. In other words, I wasn't just concerned with offense, defense or a specialty team, I was concerned with winning the game.

Tim Bryce is a writer and management consultant located in Palm Harbor, Florida.

He can be contacted at:  timb001@phmainstreet.com

Copyright © 2008 Tim Bryce.  All rights reserved.

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