February 27, 2012

Paradox of the generalist

Classic management advice is to build a republic: each team member specializes in what they're good at. It just makes sense.

You nurture existing talents in attempt to ensure personal growth; simultaneously, you fill niches that need filling, constructively combine strengths, and orchestrate sufficient overlap in order to wind up with a functioning, durable, kick-ass machine of a team. A place for everyone, everyone in their place, and badassery ensues! (So the old saying goes...)

But what if, instead, you could simultaneously fork off N teams — one for every team member — and make that team member simultaneously responsible for everything? What would happen to the personal knowledge, growth rate, and impact of each member?

Let's take it one step farther: imagine you're that team member. All of a sudden it sounds terrifying, right? If you don't know it, nobody does. If you don't do it, nobody will. If you don't research it, you'll have no idea what it's about. If you don't network, no contacts are made. If you don't ship it, you know it will never change the firm/industry/world.

So, you think like you've been trained to think: you disambiguate the possible results. What could happen? Maybe you'd crumble under the pressure. Maybe you wouldn't be able to find your calling because you're glossing over the details that make you an artisan. Maybe you'd look like a fool. Maybe you would ship totally uninteresting crap that's all been done before.

But, then again, maybe you would grow like you've never grown before, learn things that you never had the rational imperative to learn, talk to interesting people you would have never talked to, ship a product that moves an industry, and blow the fucking lid off of a whole can of worms.

And so we arrive at one tautological cliché that I actually agree with: you never know until you try. And, if you choose wisely, you'll probably have a damn good time doing it.

At the least, by definition, you'll learn something you couldn't have learned by specializing.

Chemistry and compatibility

There's a spectrum for the working compatibility between two people.

On the far left of the spectrum, there's negativity. You hate the other person's guts, and can't work with them at all. There's some personality conflict (which could simply be, "That person is an asshole") or some impasse that would require psychotherapy to bridge.

On the far right of the spectrum, there's chemistry. Effectively, you want to have their technological babies. You finish each other's... that's right, sandwiches. Or sentences. Or parser combinator libraries. When you stumble with a task or concept, that person is there to pick you up with a how's-it-going or whiteboard marker, and that's a two way street. You work together like the badass components of a emergently-more badass machine. Bio-digital jazz, man.

And smack dab in the middle, there's plain ol' compatible. This is like the "friend zone" of the working world. It's fine, and you can go on that way indefinitely, getting things done at a reasonable clip, but it probably doesn't get the creative juices flowing. You're scheduled to meet at a waypoint instead of bushwhacking away at the thicket together.

It takes time, effort, and luck to find people that you have working chemistry with — they're understandably rare. The effort has to start somewhere, though. Maybe it's a good exercise to imagine a person that you're just working-compatible with: if you bore to them your technological soul, might you get something going on?

Too smart, doesn't get quite so many things done?

We care about our craft. We're totally smart and get things done. No question.

But "smart and gets things done" has to have some kind of spectrum associated with it, right? There's at least a "smart" dimension and a "gets things done" dimension.

An easy question to ask is, "Am I overthinking?" (This is especially easy to ask if you're overthinking.)

We often quibble about how to get things done better [*] in terms of practicalities, but it often feels like people who ignore the long tail of practicalities achieve greatness with the least effort.

If you had to pick one, would it be better to over-think or to over-do?

(My advice: don't think about it too much.)

Footnotes

[*]

In some asymptotic sense of better.