Working Notes of a Practising Neo-Generalist (#1) — On being neither in nor out

“If anyone can refute me — show me I’m making a mistake or looking at things from the wrong perspective — I’ll gladly change. It’s the truth I’m after, and the truth never harmed anyone. What harms us is to persist in self-deceit and ignorance.” — Marcus Aurelius in Meditations, Book 6:21 (translated by Gregory Hays, The Modern Library, New York)

On being neither in nor out

According to Martin Neumeier in Dreaming: A Metaskill for the Future, you can’t decide to produce an insight in 30 minutes, or to have an idea by 3:15. “Imagination,” he adds, “takes as long as it takes, and rushing it usually slows it down. This is the central conflict between the world of business and the world of creativity. They need each other, but can’t seem to understand each other. They’re working in two different kinds of time.”

This idea of different kinds of time isn’t new. The ancient Greeks understood that time comes in two distinct flavors: objective time, called chronos, and subjective time, called kairos. Chronos could be measured by the sun, the moon or the seasons. Kairos could not be measured, only judged by the quality of one’s experience. “The catch is that kairos can’t be planned, and it certainly can’t be forced,” McKinley Valentine writes in Chronos & Kairos. “The best you can do is pay attention to the sort of things that lure it your way — if not much seems to, then try a hundred new things — and throw yourself across its path. Run the risk of being bored, tired and footsore.”

This conflict between chronos and kairos is something I have to deal with on a regular basis. It’s one of the dark sides of being a neo-generalist. Richard Martin and Kenneth Mikkelsen address this issue in the penultimate chapter of The Neo-Generalist, aptly titled Shadows. They share a famous anecdote of Picasso, who, while sketching in a park, was approached by a woman who asked if he would sketch her portrait. Picasso agrees. He studies her for a moment and then creates her portrait with a single pencil stroke. “It’s perfect,” she gushes, “you have truly managed to capture my essence with one stroke, in one moment.” She thanks Picasso, and politely asks how much she ows him. “Five thousand dollars,” the artist replies. But how can that be, she wants to know, for only a few minutes of endeavor. To which Picasso responds, “No, madam, it took me my whole life.”

Scene from ‘Visit to Picasso,’ a documentary from 1949 by the Belgian filmmaker Paul Haesaert.

Not every neo-generalist is a Picasso. Yet, a single insight or observation, a single pencil stroke, which, to others, might seem like a spur of the moment, can have transformative power. But how does one value such a ‘flash’ in a world that measures success in terms of quantity rather than quality? That values words and slide decks over impact, form and substance over meaning — chronos over kairos.

In my work, I have experienced many of these ‘Picasso in the park moments’ — moments where you share an insightful observation that fundamentally shifts the focus of a project or opens doors to meaningful new opportunities. But it’s not just about observations or insights, it’s also about raising questions. “It only takes him one minute and three simple questions to find out where it hurts,” a former colleague once wrote about me. “And the best part is that the next three questions will subsequently lead to unusual but effective solutions. It almost seems as if he knows today what the business needs next week.”

To me, the crux of this endorsement is in the word ‘simple.’ These questions may appear to be simple — like Picasso makes painting look simple — but being able to ask simple, yet penetrating questions or to capture somebody’s essence with a single stroke requires lifelong, and sometimes even obsessive learning. “The observation Mark made to his colleagues rested on deep and broad foundations. It did not just arrive from professional expertise, but from a potent mix of the extracurricular books he had read, the conversations he had had, the networks he had navigated and contributed to, his appreciation of art and philosophy, the insights he had gained by traveling,” Martin and Mikkelsen write in The Neo-Generalist. “His ability to blend and cross-polinate from this wealth of accumulated knowledge and lived experience enabled him to make the observation that he did. What for his colleagues was a momentary contribution, for Mark was a case of drawing on a life’s learning, a life’s work.”

“In a world still keeping step to the managerial measurement practices, how does the neo-generalist stay true to their values while gaining recognition for what they do?,” they ask. And, may I add, for who they are?

Martin Neumeier suggests that business ‘doers’ and creative ‘dreamers’ — the ones that run like clockwork and those who follow their kairos — focus on goals instead of deadlines. “These are the common ground that unites both work styles,” Neumeier believes. I’m not so sure, though. In my experience, those spreadsheet driven ‘doers’ will quickly have the upper hand. That’s quite understandable, because after you have provided them with your ‘spark of genius,’ they will have to do all, or at least most of the leg work. As a result, I often end up billing a couple of hours to a project, while they spend weeks on making slide decks (with me sitting in a corner, reading Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations and making ‘casual’ remarks, every now and then, to stop them from running into dead end alleys.) So, it’s not merely a question of being able to do what you do, and of being appreciated for that. It’s also a question of ‘being’ — of being allowed to are who you truly are.

The data of several surveys conducted by Francesca Gino, who is “a curious behavioral scientist” and a professor at Harvard Business School, suggests “organizations consciously or unconsciously urge employees to check a good chunk of their real selves at the door. Workers and their organizations both pay a price: decreased engagement, productivity, and innovation.” This can’t come as a huge surprise, though. “For decades the principles of scientific management have prevailed. Leaders have been overly focused on designing efficient processes and getting employees to follow them,” Gino argues in Let Your Workers Rebel on Harvard Business Review. But now they need to think about when conformity hurts their business and allow — and even promote — behavior that deviates from organizational norms, others’ actions, or common expectations, to the benefit of the organization. Gino calls this kind of behavior ‘constructive nonconformity.’ “Being a rebel with a cause will boost your career and enrich you personally,” she says.

Indeed, most organizations strive for uniformity, often unconsciously and despite their diversity statements and programs. During a round-up talk with the CEO of a company shortly after I had finished an assignment, we discussed this issue. “But we do have a highly diverse team,” he said, “men, women, diverse cultures and backgrounds, a wide range of studies.” “True,” I replied, “but they all think alike. Despite their diversity, you haven’t been able to hire ‘the odd ones out,’ the ones who think differently. And despite their diversity, every single one of them is an expert in one particular field. None traverses multiple domains or lives between categories and labels.”

So, I asked him why the company didn’t hire people like me? The rebels with a cause, creative dreamers, neo-generalists. “Well,” he replied, “because it makes people feel uncomfortable. You make them feel insecure. People don’t like questions, they want answers.”

Apple’s 1997 ‘Think Different’ Campaign.

I wasn’t at all surprised by this answer, because he, of course, didn’t tell me anything new. People who challenge the status quo, who are different and think differently, those people have a hard time being accepted and fitting in. By now, I know I will never be able to properly fit in. But I am also not an outsider. Neither in nor out.

David Brooks recently wrote a brilliant column for The New York Times, titled At the Edge of Inside. “In any organization there are some people who serve at the core. These insiders are in the rooms when the decisions are made,” Brooks notes. “Then there are outsiders. They throw missiles from beyond the walls. They are untouched by internal loyalties and try to take over from without. […] But there’s also a third position in any organization: those who are at the edge of the inside. These people are within the organization, but they’re not subsumed by the group think. They work at the boundaries, bridges and entranceways. […] The person on the edge of inside is involved in constant change. The true insiders are so deep inside they often get confused by trivia and locked into the status quo. The outsider is throwing bombs and dreaming of far-off transformational revolution. But the person at the doorway is seeing constant comings and goings.”

Reading Brooks’ column felt like reading about oneself. When I first read The Neo-Generalist, I experienced something similar. It almost read like an autobiography. So, where does that leave us, or more to the point, me?

Well, for starters, I think that Gino’s idea of constructive nonconformity isn’t going to work. At least, not if you’re an insider. The pressure to conform as well as the confirmation bias in hiring are simply too strong to withstand as an individual. Organizations hire for cultural fit, and if you’re not willing to conform, you’re out. Neumeier’s idea of focusing on goals — the common ground that unites both ‘doers’ and ‘dreamers’ — is equally charming. But I’m very much afraid it’s also missing the point. In a frank conversation with Kenneth Mikkelsen, he lamented that “people who need it don’t get it, and those who do, don’t need it.” It’s the same with both Gino’s and Neumeier’s ideas. To embrace them, you need to be able to think differently. And that’s the point: they can’t, so they don’t (or something like that).

As for me, I have come to the conclusion already years ago that my position is, what I can now call, at the edge of inside. I am not a consultant — the outsider who is “throwing bombs and dreaming of far-off transformational revolution” — but a catalyst for change and renewal who traverses what many see as separate domains — constantly shifting between roles, synthesizing ideas and practice, bringing together diverse people, and addressing the fundamental issues that confront us in order to shape a better future. I am a practicing neo-generalist at the edge of inside, guided by kairos. I challenge you to find a box for that…

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