Generalist vs. Specialist — Is 1 Truly Better Than the Other?

The depth of knowledge a specialist brings to their work is impressive, but don’t discount the value of a generalist. In fact, the strongest teams employ a good mix of both.
Headshot of author Todd Shepherd
Todd Shepherd
Expert Columnist
January 23, 2021
Updated: July 13, 2021
Headshot of author Todd Shepherd
Todd Shepherd
Expert Columnist
January 23, 2021
Updated: July 13, 2021

Sling Blade is one of those movies that you most likely know about even if you’ve never seen it. This is largely due to Billy Bob Thornton’s brilliant performance as the main character, Karl Childers. Karl’s uniquely gruff voice, his heavy Southern drawl and his country-fried idioms have been emulated by countless people in everything from radio shows to internet videos. It’s a lot of fun to see how people react when you break into a Karl impression. For a truly rewarding experience, do your best Karl Childers impression at a drive-thru when you have teenagers in the car with you. They’ll either laugh or slink down into the floor to keep from being seen with you. Either way, you’re welcome.

In any business or organization, the way an individual works and learns can be grouped into one of two broad categories: generalists and specialists. The more technical the work, the more important it is to understand which category applies to an individual in order to maximize their productivity and encourage professional growth. Karl is highly skilled at all sorts of small engine repair, but he doesn’t restrict himself to one type of small engine or to repairing one type or brand of machine. He certainly has expertise, but it isn’t overly specialized. I would classify Karl as a generalist rather than a specialist. There isn’t a hard demarcation between those two categories, and subjective distinctions such as this can be a bit confusing to discuss. I regard specialists as those who have a high degree of expertise across a very narrow field of specific subjects or applications. Generalists may not have the same degree of expertise in a specific area, but theirs spans a much broader field of subjects or applications. Although “a team of specialists” has a great sound to it, don’t discount the value that generalists bring to any organization. In fact, you may want to lean into bringing more generalists on board.

 

Hit Em High

In the movie, Karl works at a repair shop. One scene shows him walking out of the shop area toward a group of men huddled around a tiller with a broken engine. The shop owner calls Karl over to look at the tiller, explaining that everything in the engine seems to be assembled properly. As a result, none of the men can figure out why its engine won’t start. After examining the tiller for about five seconds, Karl looks up and shares the solution with the group — there isn’t any gas in the fuel tank. It’s a fantastic moment. Whenever I’m in a situation where numerous people have already pored over a problem only for another person to step in with an immediate, simple, obvious solution, I still quote Karl’s line to myself in my mind: “It ain’t got no gas in it.” I’ve even been known to say it out loud after frantically searching for my glasses only to find them on top of my head.

Karl’s observation of the empty gas tank illustrates the high-level perspective that generalists bring to bear on problems. Theirs is the proverbial 30,000-foot view; what it lacks in detail, it makes up for in breadth and scope. This enables generalists to approach problem solving with an “outside-in” technique, beginning with the broadest, base layer considerations and eliminating them before moving inward toward more complex potential causes. Generalists initially cast a wide net, and there is much wisdom in this approach. It often leads to an immediate fix. And even if it doesn’t, it rules out possible causes and sharpens the focus of the investigation.

By contrast, specialists tend to take an “inside-out” approach to problem solving. They’re extremely familiar with the details and inner workings of a system or subject, so that’s where they tend to start their search for solutions to problems. They identify all the intricate components that could be the cause of the problem, then work outwardly toward the symptoms to narrow the potential culprits. There’s certainly nothing wrong with working this way. In fact, I’d say it’s vital to have specialists on the team who solve problems in this fashion. But although this approach has thoroughness and detailed analysis, it lacks in speed and efficiency. These drawbacks can be counterbalanced by the generalist’s broad view and wide-net approach.

That isn’t a knock on specialists in any way. Your organization will benefit the most from a team composed of both groups. A good mix will maximize the pool of expertise the team can draw from, and it enables the team’s responses to be both agile and thorough. Specialists are a critical part of any IT team, but you aren’t going to get the balance you need and the overall maximum efficiency and output possible without some generalists on board.

 

Stretch and Flex

A generalist’s expertise is typically spread across numerous subdomains, and they’re wired to enjoy this breadth of experience rather than a more narrowly focused depth. The term ”generalist” denotes a broad category, but that’s not to say that there aren’t different types of generalists within that classification. You wouldn’t go to a restaurant and order just “a soda” to drink or go to an ice cream parlor and just ask for “ice cream.” It wouldn’t make sense to the person taking your order, and you’d get some weird looks. I’m in IT, so I’m used to people reacting to me that way. But just as soda and ice cream comes in a wide variety of flavors, so do generalists. There are those who maintain a high-level perspective at all times, and then there are others who can get specialized when they need to.

The best way to figure out what sort of generalist talent you have on your team is through good, old-fashioned conversation and observation. Getting to know them a bit and gauging their interests will give you some great insights into their natural technical aptitudes. As you talk to more generalists, you may be surprised to discover how specialized their expertise can be in certain areas. Throughout their careers, some of them have seen the need to dive deeper into this or that, and they’ve taken the plunge. These are often areas of personal aptitude or interest to the generalist, and you’ll find that they’re often happy to apply their more specialized skills if the team needs them. For example, you may need someone who can edit an audio or video file or perhaps work up a graphic design treatment, and you may not have someone designated for those tasks because it isn’t in the main line of what your organization does. Having a generalist on your team with the skills to do those types of tasks is a tremendous asset. It raises the level of service your team provides to its internal customers, which is great for your team’s overall profile. When one of you looks good, you all look good.

 

Wired for Sound

Although the generalist can be fairly described as a “jack of all trades,” that doesn’t mean they’re necessarily a master of none. Just as specialists are highly skilled in their areas of expertise, generalists are extremely good at what they do too. The difference lies in how we perceive the skill set of the generalist. Because the generalist’s expertise is popularly conceived as being wider than it is deep, many people may discount the value of a flexible generalist. It’s easier for a specialist to impress others. They have a bewildering level of knowledge about their area of expertise, and their ability to seem effortlessly conversant about such levels of intricacy is truly impressive. The generalist may not be as immediately dazzling, but the volume of their skills is just as remarkable. They’re just wired differently than the specialist.

Most people have some level of interest in a wide range of subjects. The specialist discovers something that captures their interest and they focus intensely on it, learning all they can about it and working with it as much as possible. There is some overlap with other subjects, but the specialist is intently focused. This dedication is reflected in their impressively high degree of skill in their area. The generalist’s interest is in a broader category of subjects, and their learning and work is spread across a greater number of areas. Their brains are wired to function this way, and their breadth of knowledge enables them to draw connections between various areas and disciplines quickly. This informs their approach to problem solving and decision making. They excel just as much as the specialist, and this makes them an indispensable part of any team.

Fortunately, unless your organization mandates it, you aren’t bound to a binary choice of either specialists or generalists on your team. Having a variety of expertise levels and skill sets helps give your team the agility it needs to maximize benefits to your organization. So don’t be afraid to jump into the generalist pool. You’ll be surprised at how deep the water is.

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