A charming collection.

Validating the Expert-Generalist Life-Hack

I was extremely excited the other day to receive the latest blog from Redpoint investor Tomasz Tunguz.

The subject was ‘Data Design Patterns: The building blocks of a data-driven culture’.

Could it be? I opened it with anticipation and to my near disbelief found that it was indeed a reference to that great architect Christopher Alexander.

This was the first time, in months of trying to initiate conversations about him that the world showed me any sign it still remembered him.

The Expert-Generalist

The link put me in mind of Michael Simmons’ post on the Expert-Generalist Life Hack:

Orit Gadiesh, chairman of Bain & Co, who coined the term, describes the expert-generalist as:
“Someone who has the ability and curiosity to master and collect expertise in many different disciplines, industries, skills, capabilities, countries, and topics., etc. He or she can then, without necessarily even realizing it, but often by design:
Draw on that palette of diverse knowledge to recognize patterns and connect the dots across multiple areas.
Drill deep to focus and perfect the thinking.”

The career of Christopher Alexander is a curious one. A mathematician turned architect whose biggest influence probably still lies in computer science.

While the architects I know have little awareness or enthusiasm for him, his framework in A Pattern Language was strongly embraced in Silicon Valley. And I would certainly argue that what Google builds is invariably more elegant than the majority of buildings being built.

Core Values

My enthusiasm for the reference to Christopher Alexander is that one of our emerging core values at Headswap was inspired by his work:

Be the builder and the architect
Structure and design are fundamental. Always aim for the timeless way, the living structure, build up to the masterplan. Execute according to the smallest details. Sleep under your own bridge.

We are still discussing this and shaping it to best fit our community but it draws strongly on Alexander’s view that the user of a product needs to be involved in the design (or the designer needs to be a user!).

The corollaries of these principles for organisation are numerous and largely at odds with traditional models of hierarchy which augment the customer feedback — product development circle.

The principles that Alexander employed in his architectural process are more apparent today in the agile business models that focus on user-driven design and Holacratic organisation than ever before.

Why? Because you need to get the person who can build something as close as possible to the person who consumes it. In this way an organisation can achieve both a strong product-market fit and an evangelising community.

Only by creating through a community with a shared vision and mutual understanding can we build harmonious and living structures.

Either way the principles of Alexander’s thinking are a strong starting point for building not only products and data banks but also organisations themselves and it is something that we will be discussing at Headswap as we grow.


I love to discuss this stuff. Please do get in touch with any thoughts or questions at james.murray@headswap.org.