Thursday, July 14, 2022

Career Path for the Generalist, Part 3: The Integrator

I hope you’ve enjoyed the first two parts of the Generalist Career Path!  I’ve gotten great feedback which motivates me to continue writing. A word about part 3: read the links. It is worth getting familiar with the concepts as I attempt to create my own unified theory. I’ve also revised Part 2: Interpreter if you’d like to quickly re-read. 

If the Commando gets shit done across specialty domains, while the Interpreter builds empathetic relationships across specialists within domains, then the Integrator evolves from the previous phases to create lasting value by… integrating across domains. Maybe this is what you have secretly thought you should be doing: designing solutions: organizations, technology, services and products that combine specialties to create something new from the composite parts.  Perhaps you’ve even been frustrated by specialist bosses (twos) who cannot see what you can see.  Remember, your value is not the depth of your skill but rather the breadth of your skill.  As such, you are uniquely positioned to see what others cannot, similar to the concept of Chance III.  

Charlie Munger, perhaps the most successful generalist, put it best:

“each discipline entwines with, and in the process strengthens, every other. From each discipline the thoughtful person draws significant mental models, the key ideas that combine to produce a cohesive understanding. Those who cultivate this broad view are well on their way to achieving worldly wisdom.” --Investing: The Last Liberal Art by Robert Hagstrom

And that is the role of the Integrator–to lead organizations with wisdom to solve really, really hard problems.  As your organization grows and succeeds, the problems you face will traverse the Cynefin framework into complexity and chaos.  Setting up payroll is complicated, but it is a solved problem requiring one or two functions.  Similarly for getting everyone laptops, launching  an email client or ordering furniture.  As your organization grows, it slows, in part because you run out of obvious, comfortable, single functional problems. 

To solve this coordination challenge, bureaucracy starts to emerge in the form of project plans, timelines and the dreaded “accountable person” to ensure work across functions and this naturally ends in failure.  Why?  Simply– complex work requires cross-functional nuance, which is not the same thing as merely combining single functions in a meeting.  Furthermore, the choice “accountable individual” exposes your organization to both the Sartre problem and Conway’s Law in that the solution space is predetermined by the choice of designee.  Software teams tend to solve problems with software, compliance teams with policies, and operators with procedures.  Whichever specialist you choose will terminally bias the outcome.  What the organization requires is someone who understands what everybody does to combine them in novel ways to solve novel problems: the Integrator!

A successful Integrator requires legitimate power by virtue of a senior leadership position because the greatest challenges will be your specialist peer leaders who are looking for control over their resources, certainty and predictability (and often fallaciously desiring full utilization) that is inconsistent with creation and novel problem-solving.  Empathy is important here but so is urgency, you have to bring your peers along in a Goldilocks fashion, which is a challenge I continue to struggle with as a leader.

If you can pull it off, it is amazing what your organization can accomplish.  Work is clear as it is made visible, work in progress drops and with it all the fires start to go out.  No more draining weekly update meetings with no time to do the work. Incredibly rare evening and weekend emergency meetings.  Work gets done faster as you do less of it at once because teams work together instead of in a never ending arms race against one another.  The sense of calm, controlled progress is intoxicating and sounds too good to be true.  However, once you’ve been on the other side you cannot imagine going back. 

And this is about as far as I’ve gotten in 40 years so it is as far as I can take you now.  Perhaps I will write future parts as I learn them. 

-- Special thanks to Marie Castelli for sharing the HBR Integrator article!

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