The Understated Value of Generalists

LinkedIn has rolled out an interesting concept over the past several months. There are now blogs by “thought leaders” that seem to be hosted on the site. As a content addict, this would be exciting, except that it seems that, as with HBR and other similar business sites, there is a groupthink when it comes to trends. We’ve all seen the word “innovation” one too many times.

I describe myself as “an unapologetic generalist” and lament the specialized era in which we live. I was naturally intrigued when I came across a blog post entitled The Myth of the Generalist by venture capitalist Tomasz Tunguz.

Tunguz discusses his experience at Google, where a generalist was highly sought after but thought of as an engineer who knew every relevant type of technology. It seems that Google sees a cross-platform technology expert as a generalist. I would dispute the notion that this definition could even remotely describe a generalist and claim that Google doesn’t even really want generalists, but technology geeks well versed in all platforms (which apparently don’t exist).

Tunguz revisited this notion of a generalist after reading a book by Peter Drucker:

[A] generalist is someone has demonstrated learning one field, who has an open mind and who can articulate relationships between known domains and new ideas.

This still doesn’t go far enough. I would redefine the term as follows:

A generalist has one field on which she focuses her learning, but continues to learn in multiple other fields so as to supplement her learning in her primary field.

Tunguz also fails to fully capture how generalists can provide value to an organization. As a venture capitalist, he narrowly focuses on (tech startups):

A team built of these types of people would be a great fit for a startup – smart, flexible thinkers who communicate well.

Startups bob and weave. They change architectures and products and markets and tactics. Startups need teams who can change the tires on the bus as it’s traveling at 60 mph; they need a team of MacGyvers, who combine a little bit of knowledge, a wad of gum(ption) from their pocket and some raw smarts to solve a problem. That’s my kind of generalist.

Specialization has become more and more incentivized since Adam Smith wrote about it in 1776 and as knowledge has become more available. There is growing evidence, however, that a generalist can provide value in contexts outside of the tech startup.

Let’s say there is someone employed by a company as an attorney. If that attorney devotes time to reading about business, politics, and advertising, she can provide far more value to that company than a second attorney who focuses his study narrowly on the law. The second attorney will be better at the legal aspect of his job, but the value added by the first attorney’s knowledge exceeds the value added by the superior legal skills of the second attorney. A case study:

A prominent company in a small-town creates a PR scandal legal implications. The vssecond attorney, with superior legal skills, will approach the situation thinking “we must do whatever we can to minimize our legal exposure”. His approach will result in conflict with other departments in the business.

The first attorney, with inferior legal skills but superior skills in the subjects outlined above will have a much different approach: “we must minimize our legal exposure while maximizing the effectiveness of our public relations crisis management plan”.

This case study oversimplified the matter, but I hope that it highlighted that generalists can create unforseen efficiencies within an organization.

14 thoughts on “The Understated Value of Generalists

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