The Generalist Advantage
A fox knows many things, but a hedgehog one important thing.
-Archilochus, 7th c. BC
The metaphor of the hedgehog and the fox is ancient, but powerful. The metaphor touches on a universal question: is it better to be a jack of all trades, or a master of one?
There’s a strong cultural bias today toward the specialist. We celebrate those who are the very best at one particular thing, and job descriptions and titles become narrower and narrower to find an employee who will be the perfect fit for an inflexibly specific need. To use a sports analogy, the home run leader is usually more famous than a player who is equally valuable, but with a wider skillset. Better to be #1 at one thing than #10 at everything.
But for me? I’ll take the generalist. There are definitely advantages to being a specialist and building a team of specialists, but there are some very important advantages to building a team with generalists—especially in a small business.
By definition, a small business has more limited resources than a big business. There are fewer people to go around. In that situation, it is vitally important that every member of the team have the flexibility to step in and do a lot of different things.
Nerd confession: in high school, I was the captain of our academic bowl team (and you know what, we were pretty good!). How does that relate to what I’m talking about? For each contest, we could only have 4 players at a time, and there are a lot more academic subjects than 4. We had a range of both specialists and generalists, and the key was to get the right mix. Specialists could dominate if their expertise came up, but pick all specialists and you were essentially giving up on any question that wasn’t inside those few narrowly defined areas. By taking advantage of generalists (myself included), we might miss out on some of the more obscure questions but gave ourselves the best chance to answer each and every question.
In a small business, you likely don’t have the raw size to be able to have specialists for every need. At the most extreme, a sole proprietor might have to do everything—whether it’s accounting, sales, marketing, or the actual job itself. Generalists give an organization the flexibility to tackle a wide range of things with a limited number of people. Need to shift additional people to a task with a deadline approaching? Generalists are better prepared for that. Need someone to fill in temporarily at a different role while a team member is out? A generalist can do that. Having generalists on your team allows you to move pieces around and do a lot of different things, rather than locking everyone into one specific, rigid role.
Many innovations happen not because someone comes up with an entirely new idea, but because someone sees a way to combine two already-existing things in a new way. Group A is using x, and Group B is using y—put them together and you have something new! But in order to make those connections, you have to be exposed to both groups. Someone who is always locked in on one thing, one task, one area doesn’t get a chance to experience new ideas outside of that field. Rather, it’s the generalist who has experience in both areas who is more likely to make the connection.
If you read a lot of interviews with business leaders, they frequently mention that at their big meetings they want all their people to be able and willing to talk about every aspect of the business—not just whatever their personal job responsibility is. Whatever issue the team is talking about, the floor is open for anybody to make suggestions and discuss ideas. Somebody who does one thing all the time—the specialist—frequently gets locked in to seeing it a certain way. Someone with a broader perspective might just see something that the insider never would have thought of. It’s certainly possible to encourage specialists to contribute ideas for other parts of a business, but it’s a more natural way of thinking and being for a generalist, and they can be a big boost to your creativity.
Do you think you’ll always be doing things the way you’re doing them now? Then bring on the specialists, so you can get better and better and get it down to a science. But the real world doesn’t often work like that. Things change. Technology changes, society changes, our competitors change—and if we stay the same, we often get left behind. Every business needs to be prepared to adapt. Your most successful product or service today could become obsolete tomorrow. What will you do?
Having someone who is the very best at something is great—as long as you need whatever that skillset is. But if you wake up tomorrow and suddenly you don’t need it anymore, does that person have enough other abilities to still be valuable to your organization? A generalist is never obsolete, because they are always able to adapt to changing circumstances and find a place to fit in. Having a team that can pivot on a dime and change direction whenever you need gives you an improved ability to reinvent the business, to keep helping people and providing value no matter what else happens.
When you’re building your team, don’t forget to include generalists. Don’t ignore specialists, especially in the most important areas where you need deep talents, but a good balance will help improve your flexibility, creativity, and adaptability—and stay successful through thick and thin.
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