Should you be a specialist or a generalist?


The way in which modern society is organized tends to drive people and organizations towards specialization.

Our economic system is based on the idea of division of labour. Virtually all the products we use are the result of myriad activities carried out in different parts of the world by different people.

Very few things are made by people completely in isolation from everyone else.

Mathematically, it is more effective to split up work between two parties, even if one of the parties can do everything better than the other.

So, surely specialization is the obvious and good thing to do?

But there are problems with specialization. Charles Roxburgh in this McKinsey article on scenario planning, writes about what he calls the “sabre-toothed tiger” problem.

A sabre-toothed tiger evolved to catch large land animals, able to sink its fangs into creatures like pre-historic horses.

As the climate changed around 12,300 years ago, however, the megafauna of the Americas died out and the sabre-toothed tiger became extinct, its specialist jaws unable to catch the smaller creatures that survived.

Sharks, on the other hand, have been around for over 400 million years and are virtually perfect predators.

Roxburgh argues that the shark evolved to be a generalist killing machine and therefore survived.

So does that mean you should be a generalist?

Specialization in itself is not a bad thing – the challenge is adapting when the environment that fostered that specialization changes.

If you are trained to do one thing well, and that thing you do is no longer needed, then you have a big problem.

You may run a company like Nokia, with a near monopoly on the supply of phones with keypads and what seems to be an impregnable market position.

Then along comes Apple with the iPhone and within a decade, keypads have disappeared, and with them Nokia’s market share.

It may be that the question in the title itself is flawed.

Maybe it’s not about choosing between being specialist or generalist.

It’s about choosing whether to be adaptable or rigid.

One approach will help you evolve with the environment and survive.

The other will leave you behind.

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