Specialists versus Generalists: Getting the Balance Right

What is it that drives new ideas and innovation? Is it deep, advanced technical knowledge? Or is it a broad range of skills that can identify solutions from a range of disciplines? New and developing technologies—such as artificial intelligence, quantum computing, and robotics—continue to dominate headlines and public attention. The possibilities that these developments can bring to society seem limitless, but for businesses and their workers, these developments bring a conundrum. How specialised do people need to be, and how do organisations ensure they have the right mix of talent and skills?

Why the drive to specialise?

The modern demand for specialists has been largely driven by technological developments which have improved research methods and data collection capabilities. This has allowed researchers to delve deeper into their fields of study, enabling the finer details of a problem or issue to be tested and developed. This hyper-specialised focus has meant that society is able to both understand and solve problems at a faster rate than at any previous point in history. The current prevailing belief is that hyperspecialists are more likely to identify inefficiencies and knowledge gaps, driving innovation through the creation of new tools and techniques. This is backed up by a 2022 report produced by LinkedIn [1]. It revealed, based on an in-house analysis of job vacancies posted on their site, that specialist skills were the most sought-after requirement in the current employment market. But is this completely true? And how can people with broader, less clearly defined skills find their niche in an increasingly specialised world?

Why are specialists important and what are their limitations

Specialists or specialisation is not a bad thing. It suits some people, and certain roles and tasks are so complex that mastery takes years. Most people take comfort in the knowledge that airline pilots need thousands of hours flying before becoming a captain, or that their surgeon has devoted years of training to their field. Specialisation is also seen as a sign of rigour and thoroughness. Jürgen Klopp, the Liverpool football manager said “You can never have enough specialists” when explaining why he employed a coach to concentrate solely on throw-ins in 2018 [2]. Sir Clive Woodward, England’s 2003 Rugby World Cup-winning coach, was renowned for hunting out specialists to add to his team. This quest even led Woodward to have an eyesight coach on his staff during the triumph in Australia, who worked with players to develop their visual performance. Sports players and coaches talk about the search for the ‘one percenters’: the extra edge that could tip a tight match or race in their favour. This makes sense in the high-stakes world of professional sports where the line between success and failure is wafer-thin. It makes even more sense in areas or industries where the consequences of failure can be lethal, for example in aircraft engineering and maintenance.

A doctor, currently working as a general practitioner, but who initially trained as a surgeon, once explained to me that dealing with uncertainty was the main difference between the two jobs. When he was given a patient to operate on, he knew exactly what was wrong and what procedure was needed. While the technical skills were difficult, all the diagnostics had already been done. In general practice, things are not so clear-cut. “Is this person just rundown, or is it the early symptoms of cancer?” he said. “Are they just feeling a bit down and having a bad day, or are they at risk of harming themselves?”

The world has a clear need for specialists, but they also have limitations. Specialisation brings a narrowness of knowledge and context, which can create difficulties when trying to solve problems that cut across domains. What these problems need are people who understand the wider context behind an issue and can bring knowledge from different areas to find answers.

What does a generalist approach bring?

What often gets overlooked or missed in these types of discussions is that while generalists are highly skilled, the difference is the depth and range of their skills. A generalist would argue very strongly against any notion that they do not have any specialised skills. The point of difference is that they have chosen not to become a deep specialist in a singular area and have instead looked at how to adapt and transfer knowledge and skills across different work settings.

Jayshree Seth, a corporate scientist and the chief science advocate at the 3M company, is a prime example of how a solid set of core skills can be used to cut across disciplines to solve complex problems. She describes herself, in David Epstein’s book Range: How Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, as having breadth: a “T-shaped person”—as opposed to an “I-shaped person” who only has depth. When tackling a problem, Seth takes the approach of an investigative journalist and looks at the overall requirements. What are the key questions that need to be answered? And what are the obstacles in the way? She then talks to the deep specialists—the ‘I’ people—to see how their knowledge could contribute to finding a solution. This is all brought together with a multidisciplinary approach used to develop the question and answer the problem. Seth confessed she is “not a very good scientist” (there must be an element of modesty in this statement: she has a PhD in chemical engineering). However, the 68 patents developed by Seth during her time at 3M are a testament to the effectiveness of her approach. She understands the concepts behind the questions that need to be answered, and is effective at bringing specialised expertise together to generate practical solutions.

Why should we value generalists?

Seth and Klopp work in completely different spheres, but they exhibit key generalist qualities and strengths. Both of them have a strong understanding of their industries and the different elements that need to be harnessed to get results. Klopp understands football tactics, how to motivate players, how to plan for increasingly long and arduous seasons, and ways to identify opposition weaknesses. Seth understands chemical engineering applications and how other scientific disciplines can be incorporated to build a team of problem solvers. The common element here is the ability to define a problem, create a vision, and identify the resources needed to solve problems and develop solutions. In this context, generalists should be seen as a glue, bringing skills, knowledge and approaches together, particularly when addressing ambiguous or uncertain problems. Specialists are invaluable when solving tightly defined problems in their field, but are not always able to look outside of their spheres of expertise. The ability to learn from other areas is well understood—many highly innovative scientists have pursued interests in the arts, and conversely, many pioneering artists have had a keen interest in science.

This need for breadth is only going to become more critical. Communities across the world require solutions to a myriad of challenges which directly impact the quality of human life. Issues like the climate emergency, safely harnessing technology, and public health challenges will need multidisciplinary approaches to solve, as no one area of society exists in isolation. Climate change, for example, will need a response involving climatologists, marine biologists, urban planners, and economists—and this is only a handful of the expertise required.

Balance is key in these situations. While it is often essential to have people who possess deep skills and knowledge, they need to be complemented by breadth: the ‘T’ people. In fact, organisations should go a step further and encourage their specialists to look outside their bubbles and learn from other sectors and fields. By doing so they will be able to gain new perspectives and ideas to drive new innovations and build solutions. Everyone should aim to become a ‘T’ person, even if it is just a small ‘t’.