One of the interesting details that emerged after the BP Gulf oil spill disaster is that CEO Tony Hayward felt there were too many generalists at the company when he took over. In a 2009 speech at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, Hayward described steps he took after becoming BP's CEO.  Shortly after assuming leadership in 2007, Hayward assembled a team to put the company through a critical self-assessment.  Among the team's findings was that:

 We had too many shallow generalists - people who knew a lot about not very much, but not a lot about specific areas.

As Hayward noted in the speech, the company was dealing with several disasters and near disasters, and was underperforming in revenue generation, given the size of their assets.  He targeted several areas related to safety, performance, and people to turn the company around.  The presence of too many generalists was one apparent cause of the company's troubles.  By changing personnel, Hayward was presumably aiming not only to generate more profits, but to prevent disasters.  

I can't begin to ascertain the causes of the Gulf oil disaster, nor the role of generalists in it.  But, I am interested in how Hayward raised the issues of generalists and finding the right balance between specialists and generalists. 

There's no doubt that designing and managing something as complicated as a deep sea oil rig requires specialists.  The question is, what do generalists bring to the table in the case of something so technically complex?

One thing generalists do is look at the whole.  Not the whole issue of environmental health and safety planning and training, or the whole incident response management plan, or the whole system of managing subcontractors, or even the whole design of the drill rig.  The whole.  The entire system of people, machinery, organizations, and policies - how the parts interrelate, where the weak spots and gaps are, and, perhaps most importantly, how all the little incidences of risk that are deemed acceptable on their own can add up to something altogether intolerable.  As they are not well-versed in the specifics, they also tend to ask a lot of questions.  These questions can seem naïve to experts, but they are often useful in revealing overlooked issues.

We've written here about home design and what happens when each little component is designed separately:  the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, and not in a good way.  When no one considers how all the parts work together, the result is not only pieces working against one another, but lost opportunities to improve performance.  dMass certainly requires a measure of stepping back and thinking broadly. 

What do you think?  What value do you believe generalists offer?  How can we foster experts' roles and capabilities in thinking about whole systems?  What do these issues look like and mean to you in your organization?

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