‘This isn’t just an ordinary up-and-down lift!’ announced Mr Wonka proudly. ‘This lift can go sideways and longways and slantways and any other way you can think of! It can visit any single room in the whole factory, no matter where it is!’ … ‘The whole lift is made of thick, clear glass!’ Mr Wonka declared. ‘Walls. doors, ceiling, floor, everything is made of glass so you can see out!’
— Roald Dahl, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
Obliquity is a process of experiment and discovery. Successes and failures and the expansion of knowledge lead to reassessment of our objectives and goals and the actions that result.
— John Kay, Obliquity
A linear approach to what we make, how we make it, who we make it with and how we share and communicate is a framework or lens that sets us to look upon our world and act in a very particular fashion. Shuffle is an example of a non-linear approach, a means by which we can access, curate and interpret the world in a different way.
— Alan Moore, No Straight Lines
In their constant search for competitive advantage, organizations are seeking people who already have specialized knowledge. This encourages people to keep going deeper rather than wider in their formal and informal learning.
— Steven D’Souza & Diana Renner, Not Knowing
Metaphors are a great vehicle for communication. Kit White observes in his aphoristic 101 Things to Learn in Art School that ‘Metaphor is the medium of symbolic language and is the language of art.’ With metaphors we can package up ideas and concepts and convey them to other people. A metaphor is something that can transcend visual, written and verbal language. As Susan Greenfield suggests, metaphorical thinking is one of the ways that humans distinguish themselves from closely related species like chimpanzees. The torch and compass help us navigate our way into and map the unknown. The candle’s flame enables us to light the wicks of other candles as knowledge is shared and amplified. The spider’s silk is suggestive of the digital, networked world in which we now commune.
Author James Sallis offers an intriguing perspective in his essay Gently into the Land of Meateaters: ‘Certainly each of us becomes a metaphor of the world: we figure the world from ourselves.’ When I think of how I use this blog – as a sense-making tool, as a platform for sharing ideas both embryonic and developed, as a repository of curated content, as a catalyst to conversation – I find this is an interpretation that resonates with me. In some respects, this blog and the books that are evolving from it are exercises in metaphorical enquiry. Each metaphor used here – the peloton, the cathedral, the detective, the flâneur, the bridge – are threads that are being woven into a larger tapestry. One of the latest threads, representative of an interest in both the polymathic generalist and the act of stewardship, is the elevator.
The elevator with which Willy Wonka transports Charlie Bucket and his grandfather is one of opportunity, curiosity, transparency and multidirectionality. Not only does it operate within the loose framework of Wonka’s factory, but it has the potential to journey into the unknown too. It is not regulated by one set course, but it can navigate in any direction. Compare this to the traditional bank of elevators in an office building. They travel up and down. Some require passes to activate them. Certain floors are restricted and off-limits. The fast elevator to the top floor is reserved for senior executives. Not so very different, then, as I observed in The apprentice’s craft, from the deep channels of silo-based expertise and hyperspecialism that characterise the make-up of many organisations.
The traditional career path we have settled on suggests the exploitation of a narrow set of specialisms. The individual is recruited to a post based on a combination of academic credentials and previous experience. They are labelled and pigeonholed by both a job title and job description. By conforming with the latter and working within its bounds, they develop, even narrow, their specialism. Their subsequent progression up the corporate ladder, their access to the building’s upper floors, are closely aligned with this increasingly dated expertise. Their understanding of the other elevator shafts, the knowledge contained within them, the role of their occupants in achieving corporate goals and delivering on common purpose, is limited. Eventually they alight on one of the upper floors, the speed of their upwards trajectory either slowed or curtailed altogether. They are now a manager, acquiring a shallow set of broader skills to supplement their area of specialist expertise. They have been branded with the letter T.
Wonka’s elevator is one for the neo-generalist. It is the hyperlink made conveyor of people. It defies the silo of the traditional elevator shaft. It knows no restrictions. Its path is the path of obliquity, travelling to the unknown. It moves through space and time like the Doctor Who’s Tardis or Bill and Ted’s phone booth, acquiring knowledge, cross-pollinating ideas, taking a bird’s eye view, picking out patterns in the big puzzle. When all has been digested, internalised, sifted and blended, then a more traditional course can be set. Sometimes even to the top floor. So, for example, Alexander Fleming discovers penicillin by accident rather than design, and a pharmaceutical industry focus on antibiotics and their medical application subsequently follows. Or actress Hedy Lamarr and composer George Antheil combine their interests in applied science to develop frequency-hopping ideas that today are building blocks for wireless technologies. Or businessman Steve Jobs invests his personal energies and finances in multiple industries including personal computers, animation, music, high street stores, software and mobile telephony, and through an intricate game of hopscotch manages to master and integrate them all.
What happens when a polymathic generalist assumes a leadership role in an organisation? The intertwined stories of Jobs and Ed Catmull, documented in the latter’s Creativity, Inc., hint at the fusion of art and science and technology. Of people playing, experimenting, learning, failing and triumphing in several fields. In Catmull’s case, in particular, there is the suggestion of an individual seeking to create conditions in which others can bloom. The idealised polymathic leader is a visionary who strives for a future that they will not be part of themselves, an elevator floor at which they will never arrive. They aim to steward others, dedicated to the husbandry of their organisation, the individual people within it, nurturing the potential each has to fulfil. The stories that emerge about such people invariably point to their mentoring capabilities, their willingness to share knowledge and experience, to send the elevator back down so that others might follow, might build on the foundations they have laid, might push at the boundaries of the maps they have drawn.
You have to send the elevator back down.
— Jack Lemmon in conversation with Kevin Spacey
The saving grace was that declaring my beliefs about the asphyxiating effects of mechanistic organization versus the vitalizing results of organic systems had an unexpected liberating effect on me. That experience of liberation through speaking personal truths – along with the fact that my presentation caused no significant change at the heart of Hallmark – convinced me that, in the future, my efforts would be best spent in not trying to change Hairballs, but in offering to midwife out of Hairballs anyone who longed for a fuller, more original work experience.
— Gordon MacKenzie, Orbiting the Giant Hairball
Enlightened leaders deliberately hand over responsibility in order to create engaged team-players able to adapt their approach to suit the conditions.
— James Kerr, Legacy
When looking to hire people, give their potential to grow more weight than their current skill level.
— Ed Catmull with Amy Wallace, Creativity, Inc.