The Benefits of Being a Generalist in a Specialized World
In today’s world, conventional wisdom tells us that the most experienced individuals in each domain end up being the most successful. This seems obvious when we look at the leaders in a variety of fields. Lionel Messi has been playing professional soccer since he was 16. Warren Buffet bought his first stock at 11. Tiger Woods began swinging a golf club when he was just 11 months old. It can seem like the earlier someone commits to an activity, the higher their ceiling for success. Early specialization leads to improved outcomes.
We have similar expectations in the workplace. Consultants are generally staffed on projects based on their functional specializations and industry knowledge. The better a consultant gets at specific functional skills, or the more industry knowledge she gains, the better the projects she will be assigned to. With clear incentives to specialize, consultants generally do just that. Still, the ubiquity of this specialization makes it important to examine whether it is beneficial.
The writer Philip Tetlock studied the effectiveness of different groups at predicting future events with his “Good Judgement Project.” In the competition, professionals such as analysts from the U.S. intelligence services faced off with amateur forecasters in predicting the future. The events chosen included predictions in the specialists’ areas of focus such as the outcome of a Ugandan election or the spot price of oil in three months time. While we would expect the professionals, with their hyper-specialized knowledge, to dominate the amateurs, the amateurs used their wider range of experiences and knowledge to routinely outperform the analysts.
Essentially, “The Good Judgement Project” demonstrates that it can actually be a detriment to overspecialize in a given field. Overspecialization leads to a narrowed mindset and an inability to think outside of the box, essential creative skills for any consultant. The major value-add in hiring a consultant is getting an outsider’s perspective on a business problem; specialization transforms you into an insider, limiting the value of your unique perspective.
With the importance of remaining a generalist understood, the question now becomes “How does a consultant avoid being siloed into a specialty?”
Consultants must be proactive and vocal about what they want their career to look like. It can be tempting to continue taking projects in familiar areas, but this can lead to stagnation and overspecialization. In consulting, it is better to be a Leonardo Da Vinci than a Tiger Woods. Tiger can produce one type of work effectively while the renaissance man can cross-pollinate across a wide range of skills to produce something extraordinary. To become a Da Vinci, it is crucial to clearly tell the decision-makers at your firm that you would like to be staffed on projects outside of your expertise. If you show commitment to developing new skills, your managers will be more than willing to staff you onto new projects. It benefits them to have a diverse range of skills at their disposal and increases your value to the firm. This increase in value will lead to more opportunities on a range of projects, creating a cycle of career progression. Remaining a generalist allows for increased creativity, risk taking, and the ability to think like an outsider; all skills necessary to advance in a consulting career.
Superforecasting by Philip Tetlock
Range by David Epstein
How to Win in a Winner-Take-All World by Neil Irwin