Do Specialists Create More Value than Generalists?


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On the face of it, it would seem that specialists add more value than generalists. But the facts are generalists generally do add more value than specialists.

Specialists tend to be good performers but not great value creators. A generalist is a better value creator. A generalist understands business better than a specialist and has many more areas of knowledge. Take two accountants at the same level, one a specialist and the other a generalist. Both perform well, and the specialist might understand accounting better. The generalist on the other hand may come to the boss and say we need to think differently with Brexit coming around the corner. He is adding more value.

Even more interesting is that the specialised and experienced accountants have more difficulty adjusting to new accounting laws than novices. This is true of expert chess players where rules are changed versus for beginner players.

David Epstein in ‘Range’ says highly specialised experts can become arrow minded and may become worse with experience (which makes them more confident) as they tend to become single minded. He goes on to say specialist cardiologists are likely to put in stents more often than necessary and you may be better off with a generalist in cases where stents are not required, to avoid insertion of unnecessary stents.

There are more specialists though in the US than general physicians and this is due to better income levels of specialists.

Epstein talks about a study on Nobel Laureates. He states these people have hobbies like dancing or singing or gardening, which instead of dissipating their deep knowledge, strengthens it. Experts that do not make it to the Nobel are single minded in their work and specialisation.

Being a generalist gives you a better chance in a variety of markets. (In my case, early on in my career, I found companies were interested in my specialist skills rather than my generalist outlook). Later on, in their career, generalists have ‘career flexibility’ than early on. HR people miss this when they try to match someone’s background to a job. Learning and unlearning is becoming an important trait in the future.

On the corporate front, as the world becomes increasingly interconnected, organizations are valuing generalists for their ability to multi-task, see the bigger picture, and work with different departments to solve issues. Generalists also have more transferable skills – a critical aspect in ensuring business scalability.

The biggest disadvantage of being a generalist, however, is the trade-off between depth and breadth. Having knowledge of several things prevents one from mastering a single discipline to the best extent possible. This could make generalists more replaceable and increases job insecurity.

Generalists in today’s digital economy have to rely on specialists for data and analysis, but they (generalists) are able to make much better decisions.

Does when you start specialising impact your success and value creation? Many people have researched this and have found whether you start specialising early on (like Tiger Woods and golf) or much later (as Roger Federer and tennis), you are likely to succeed. Similarly, length of specialisation does not matter, and the generalised experience before specialising is very useful.

Learning, according to this is better to be done slowly, even if it means poor test scores (according to Epstein). These people are smarter eventually in what they have learnt.

So, we have to ask how rote education rates with flexible education. Closed skills are acquired fast, whereas open skills are also required. Thus knowledge, experience, early agility, mental exercising are all important in education. So, in colleges perhaps open teaching is better, to think beyond experiential learning. Self-education techniques are worthwhile.

Doctors during training rotate and get a generalised training before specialising.

The best innovators are those who can use analogies from their different domain experiences, and splice together and synthesise, through their diverse knowledge.

There is much to be said about being an outsider and having a breadth of knowledge in innovating and in solving tricky problems. Many generalists have solved problems using knowledge from some other field in the problem. Generalists do not get bogged down by details that specialists tend to.

In innovating meetings, I would always tell people to look at solutions and say they will never work or they are too expensive. Better to see how to make them work or reduce the cost (Costs come down as products become popular and are sold in larger quantities).

Thus, should we look for a specialist or a generalist (this is a general question and not a specific one)? Or Generalizing-Specialists and Specializing-Generalists? That is a specialist who develops a wider range of interest is more valuable. Also, there is a risk of specialisation, and that is you can become outdated, or your skills are no longer current.

A specialising generalist is one who is a generalist but has a strong specialisation. I have always maintained you must be very strong in one area or more to become a generalist and to succeed. No one can take away your specialised knowledge. You will always be able to rely on your specialisation past to deal with other specialists, and to have a discipline of thinking. Be a specialist in your skills.

In our own field, we find most CX (Customer Experience) experts cannot see beyond experience and miss what Customer Value people can see more generically!

So, who creates more value? So, therefore, let us define value:

Creating Value is executing normal, conscious, inspired, and even imaginative actions that increase the overall good and well-being, and the worth of and for ideas, goods, services, people or institutions including society, and all stakeholders (like employees, customers, partners, shareholders and society), and value waiting to happen.

Value waiting to happen is ideas in front of us we do not notice, like porcupine quill design to suture wounds or using gecko-based adhesives to close cuts. These were not discovered by experts but by generalists who thought cross functional. Many new entrepreneur unicorns are new to the subject and used lateral thinking.

There is no formula that can tell us whether it is the specialist who creates more value or the generalist. It depends on their way of looking at things, their breadth and interests, their way of thinking. In the long run it appears generalists create more value than specialists.

Generalist-specialists or specialist-generalists may be the best in creating value.

What do you think?

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Gautam Mahajan
Gautam Mahajan, President of Customer Value Foundation is the leading global leader in Customer Value Management. Mr Mahajan worked for a Fortune 50 company in the USA for 17 years and had hand-on experience in consulting, training of leaders, professionals, managers and CEOs from numerous MNCs and local conglomerates like Tata, Birla and Godrej groups. He is also the author of widely acclaimed books "Customer Value Investment: Formula for Sustained Business Success" and "Total Customer Value Management: Transforming Business Thinking." He is Founder Editor of the Journal of Creating Value ( and runs the global conference on Creating Value (


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