Bring in the Generalists

If you want your child to grow up to be Tiger Woods or Roger Federer, shouldn’t you put a little golf club or tennis racket in their crib?

If your business or organization has a problem in a specific area, shouldn’t you hire the foremost experts in that subject area to help solve it?

The answer is: it depends.


The paradox of generalization

In his new book, Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, David Epstein explores a contemporary paradox. In fields like education, sports, music, business, medicine (and plenty of others), the recent trend has been towards specialization.

But Epstein argues that specialization is often not the way to go when it comes to ultimate success. For example, an important part of a college education is the opportunity to sample different courses in an effort to find a match between individual and subject matter, but increasingly, students are asked to define their career path upon entry to higher education so they don’t “fall behind.”

Research shows, however, that those who get a head start through early specialization are often overtaken by others who are given the benefit of the breadth of experiences. Tiger Woods was swinging a golf club as soon as he could walk. Roger Federer didn’t specialize in tennis until his late teens, developing his overall athletic abilities through playing multiple other sports.

Determining whether specialization or generalization is most beneficial depends on if you are looking at a “wicked” problem or a “kind” problem.

Wicked vs. kind

A “kind” problem has patterns that repeat over and over, feedback comes quickly, and all actions happen within a relatively narrow set of boundaries. Chess is an example of a kind environment; golf, also. As Epstein says: “Drive a golf ball, and it either goes too far or not far enough; it slices, hooks, or flies straight. The player observes what happened, attempts to correct the error, tries again, and repeats for years.”

If patterns are going to repeat, those who can understand the implications of those patterns most quickly have an advantage. So, Tiger Woods—refining the minutiae of his golf swing from the age of three—reaps the benefits of early specialization.

But in “wicked” problems: “The rules of the game are often unclear or incomplete, there may or may not be repetitive patterns and they may not be obvious, and feedback is often delayed, inaccurate, or both.” This describes tennis.

Because Federer was a generalist throughout his formation as an athlete, he credits skills learned playing basketball and badminton as the secret to his extraordinary hand-eye coordination and, ultimately, his astounding success on the tennis court.

“Wicked” also describes many of the problems companies and organizations face. If making strategic decisions invariably adhered to a fixed set of patterns and outcomes, plotting the proper direction and making the right choices wouldn’t be so difficult.

We see this over and over again in our work, where the research reveals something we didn’t even know we were looking for prior to executing the project. The key to great research is to have a design that’s specific enough to capture what you’re certain you need to know, while staying open enough to recognize the unexpected when it arrives. A mindset geared toward solving wicked problems helps in this regard.


Expert generalists

At Willow we were especially intrigued by Epstein’s book and the underlying research into the benefits of being generalists, because this is how we see ourselves. We cannot define ourselves by working in a particular industry or focusing on a specific methodology. We prefer to look at the unique research problem and design an approach that’s customized to the occasion.

American culture currently puts great stock in specialization, so—as committed generalists who specialize in research—we’re heartened to see an appreciation for the benefits of enacting a vision that puts process first, knowing that this results in the best possible product.

Our clients’ problems are almost inevitably “wicked,” which means our expertise as researchers without (or beyond) specialization comes in handy. We always start by talking to clients about the specifics of their problem, well before any research starts, well before we’ve even secured the job. This is because we want to make sure we’re the best company for the job.

This doesn’t mean specialization is inherently bad and generalizing is inherently good. If you need a particular surgery, you want a surgeon who has the thousands of hours of deliberative practice that makes them good at that task. If you know you need a specific measurement, you want to use the experts who have proven best at taking that measurement accurately.

But when you’ve got a wicked problem, it may be time to call in the generalists.

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