Be a responsible generalist; avoid the specialists
13 May, 2020

Specialists are almost required to have a bias: their solution is the solution to most problems.

Obviously they shouldn’t have such a bias, but if someone has invested a life in a methodology (agile, non-directive play therapy, manual joint manipulation chiropracty), they’re often going to see the process as the solution, rather than the result of such a process as the goal.

Generalists have an eclectic approach to problem-solving: pull on various frameworks and fields to solve the problem, focusing on the result and mixing-matching various solutions. Their struggles are to not mix philosophically contradictory methods (I still remember this impassioned project manager telling me how a “WBS IMS and an SOW IMS cannot co-exist!” when to me an Integrated Master Schedule is just a list of the sequence of a project), and to know when to bring in the specialist.

I see the specialist as incredibly dangerous.

In tech startups:

  • A specialist marketer will say you need a complete brand strategy ($20k), glorious website ($30k), and paid ads strategy ($2-4k/mo), even though you don’t have product-market fit yet or even value-fit.
  • A specialist technologist will build you an app for $80k, with a work rhythm of “I’ll carve out time to meet with you, let’s see I’m free in 2 weeks” that defeats your startup, despite you don’t yet have product-market fit or even value-fit and probably shouldn’t build an app yet at all.

What’s rough is that the specialists here are both well-meaning and well-paid. Unless they have equity and take on your problem in survival-mode, they’re just going to tell you the “supposed tos” of their craft—which will run you raggedly out of resources before you know it. But both the marketer and the technologist must power their work on the insight of the generalist: where is the real value, precisely, for whom?

How to start the path towards a responsible generalist in your specialty: become hyper-fluent in the stages/disciplines that precede and follow your specialty.

How to avoid the specialists: find or become enough of a generalist to know exactly what you need when bringing in specialists for just a second.

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A synthesizer of neuroscience, classical rhetoric, philosophy, 5,000+ hours at whiteboards, high stakes presentations, Fortune 10 consulting, and startup growth.

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