Two out of the many emerging and related work trends I’ve been hearing and reading about lately are the growing interest by many organizations in developing generalists versus specialists, and the increased skepticism about expertise.
Let’s take the first trend. A recent article in The Atlantic Monthly (2019) describes a new type of Navy ship, The USS Gabrielle Giffords. According to the authors, the ship has a very unusual design in its lower contour – it has three separate hulls and is powered like a jet ski. In fact, the ship is described as almost modular; its insides can be swapped out, so it can “set sail as a submarine hunter, minesweeper, or surface combatant, depending on the mission.” (p. 58)
What is particularly interesting, according to the authors, is that the ship has adapted “minimal manning,” or the replacement of specialized workers with problem-solving generalists. For example, the authors interviewed a crew member calling out distances using a pair of binoculars. He was working to become a certified lookout, but should a fire break out, he would become a “boundaryman” and work to stop the spread of smoke to other compartments. The authors cite many more examples of other crew members with multiple roles.
As a result, the Navy has been selecting future crew members based on their ability to multitask. The authors also suggest that for such individuals tasked with many different roles, a “rigid adherence to routine … in situations with rapidly changing rules and roles … can leave you ill-equipped.” (p. 62)
Traditionally, organizations have relied on job descriptions to specify what your job responsibilities are; the more specific, the better. Yet in many companies today, jobs are being defined more broadly; in fact, for some organizations, rigidly defined job descriptions no longer exist. Employees are expected to contribute not just by doing what their job requires but also by being part of teams that are working for a common goal. And what this means is that at times, you are expected to go beyond what your job definition is to help others, and to learn what others in your team are doing so you can jump in when needed. Job rotations and training in multiple skills are part of this trend.
Furthermore, there are dangers in overspecializing. For example, Epstein (2018) writes in his book, Range, that “… among athletes who go on to become elite, broad early experience and delayed specialization is the norm. Musicians arrive at greatness via an incredible diversity of paths, but early hyperspecialization is often not necessary for skills development …” (p. 289) His examples include the basketball Hall-of-Famer Steve Nash (who did not get a basketball until he was thirteen) and the famous pianist Stanislav Richter (who did not start formal lessons until he was 22).
What about law, engineering, medicine, and many other professions where specialization is necessary? Even in medicine, Epstein claims, there are dangers in specialization. He cites interventional cardiologists who have a deep-seated belief in the efficacy of stents, despite evidence that stents do not really work that well.
However, many professionals do start by specializing, and eventually, some become generalists. There certainly is value for both roles. For example, in a study of inventors at 3M (Boh et al., 2013), a company well-known for its innovations, the authors found three types of inventors there – generalists, specialists, and polymaths (those with both breadth and expertise) – and each had different impacts on the organization: “The specialists contributed to 3M by producing the most technologically influential inventions. The generalists contributed by producing many ideas and patents. The polymaths contributed not only by generating inventions but applying these inventions widely to multiple parts of the organization, integrating with multiple technologies, thus becoming the most valued scientists of 3M.” (p. 364)
Van der Hejden’s (from Frie et al., 2019) concept of flexperts, as “those experts who have the ability to meet changing expertise requirements above and beyond their already existing in-depth domain-specific knowledge and skills” seems similar to these polymaths.
On the second trend, the distrust of experts has an underlying populist theme. This distrust has also increased due to the accessibility to all kinds of information online, as well as the highly-publicized errors that so-called experts have made. e.g., in not predicting the economic recession. Although the importance of expertise is well acknowledged, other researchers have questioned the risks of overrelying on expertise. For example, Fisher and Keil (2015) showed that individuals with so-called formal expertise (e.g., those who have studied a topic or field for an extended period – think MBAs or physicians) tend to forget what they have learned over time and also tend to overestimate their ability to explain something related to their specialty area. As they state: “Those with formal expertise exhibit meta-forgetfulness within their domain of knowledge, neglecting the rate at which deliberately learned information decays from memory.” (p. 15).
In a review of over 700 studies on the accuracy of physicians’ self-assessments with external observations of their competence, Davis et al. (2006) found “…weak or no associations between physicians’ self-rated assessments and external assessments …” (p. 1100). And as they point out, these findings for the medical profession are consistent with findings from other professions, such as law and engineering.
Finkelstein (2019) describes this as the expertise trap. This happens
in one of two ways. One, you can become too overconfident in your own
knowledge. Two, your expertise narrows your perspective, and you
begin to look at problems through your own limited perspective.
In organizations, of course, specialists and experts are undoubtedly needed. Firms from all kinds of sectors (from technology to financial services to education) hire highly specialized and highly trained individuals to work on complex problems. Companies like General Motors, Samsung, Shell and many start-ups would not succeed unless they have the right talent and specialized knowledge to build their competitive advantage. And wouldn’t you rather be operated on by an expert surgeon than, say, your primary care physician? Research by Goodall et al. (2011) has shown that teams and organizations led by experts tend to get better results than those that are not.
For managers and organizations, here are three recommendations for making sure you have the right balance of experts, generalists, and flexperts or polymaths. First, select for potential, not just experience. I will elaborate on this in a future post, but I do see more and more companies moving away from looking exclusively at experience or pure technical or specialized skills. Expertise and technical skills will continue to be important but in addition, I predict that potential will also weigh heavily in the future. Second, do not define roles too rigidly and coach your workers to be able to take on several roles. In the dynamic team environments of business today, teams with members who can adapt quickly and learn different roles are likely to be more effective.
Third, create a learning environment. For example, when a project or assignment fails, dig deep to understand the underlying causes without necessarily pinning blame. Encourage an “outside-in” mindset; be aware of outside trends and the implications for your team or firm. I know of a janitorial services company that wanted to dramatically improve their services.To get an idea of what great customer service looks like, its senior management team contacted Ritz Carlton management and arranged for the company’s management team to visit the hotel chain’s headquarters. As another example, when I was leading an internal learning and development team at a Fortune 500 company, we arranged a visit to General Electric’s Crotonville plant, where its world-famous Learning and Development center was based, to learn from GE’s success in this area.
For individuals, here are three suggestions. First, make sure you make a commitment to engage in lifelong learning. I like what Wiseman (2014) describes as adopting a “rookie” mindset. Her overall message (with many examples in her book) is that we all need to think and act like perpetual rookies. She is not suggesting that prior knowledge and experience are useless, but that we remain open and eager to learn. Getting a degree or certificate should be merely a step in a life-long learning journey. The key today is not whether you become an expert or a generalist but how you are continuing to learn and renew yourself. The recruiting firm Korn Ferry places great value on identifying potential executives who have learning agility, which they define as the ability and willingness to learn from experience, and then apply that learning to perform successfully under new situations. It’s how you learn, not necessarily (or exclusively) what you know.
Second, be aware of the different career choices you will have to make at some point – specialist, generalist, or polymath – where your passions lie, and what you are best at being. Third, engage in self-reflection, and get out of your comfort zone occasionally. This is a challenge especially for successful executives, but important for them to do. Most of us like our routine and take comfort in our habits, dysfunctional though some of them maybe. But forcing yourself out of your comfort zone occasionally will make you more open to new experiences and ideas. The late Eleanor Roosevelt used to say, “Do something every day that scares you.”
Boh, W. et al. (2014). Balancing Breadth and Depth of Expertise for Innovation: a 3M Study. Research Policy, 349-366.
Davis, D. et al. (2006). Accuracy of Physician Self-assessment Compared with Observed Measures of Competence: A Systematic Review. JAMA, 296 (9), 1094-1102.
Epstein, D. (2019). Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World. New York: Riverhead Books.
Goodall, A. et al. (2011). Why Do Leaders Matter? Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, 77 (3), 275-284.
Finkelstein, S. (2019). Don’t Be Blinded by Your Own Expertise. Harvard Business Review, May-June.
Fisher, M. and Keil, F. (2015). The Curse of Expertise: When More Knowledge Leads to Miscalibrated Explanatory Thought. Cognitive Science, 1-19.
Frie, L. et al. (2019). How Experts Deal with Changing Expertise Demands: A Qualitative Study into the Processes of Expertise Renewal. Human Resources Quarterly, 30: 61-79.
Wiseman (2014). Rookie Smarts. New York: HarperBusiness.