Wednesday 14 May 2008

The case for generalists

Seth Godin makes a case against being a generalist.

The problem is, I think the metaphor breaks down. Sure I want the best possible surgeon to fix my heart but I don't want to pay that surgeon to look at my sprained ankle or listen to my chest cough: there's a trade off there between specialization and cost. Also, I don't want a plumber, no matter how good he or she may be, to build my house for me. For that task I want a really good GENERAL contractor. Someone who knows just enough about all the parts of the house to make sure everything is done correctly and in the right order. A contractor who is good enough to know when to bring in other experts when necessary.

It seems to me there's a huge need for people who know enough about enough different things to communicate with and coordinate the specialists. Contractors, project managers, integrated health practitioners, and so on...

I've been thinking recently about companies hiring consultants. They bring in "specialized" consultants who throw buzzwords around and tell them what they Need To Do. The problem is that often nobody at the company knows enough to know what the consultants are talking about. What you almost need to do is hire another consultant (a generalist) for just long enough to talk to your other consultants and find out if what they're suggesting makes sense. I met a computer programmer type who did an internship (not specifically computer-related I think) with the airport authority in Beijing. In meetings, he was the only one with enough knowledge to really evaluate much of what the contractors were saying so they hired him on after his internship for quite a large sum of money to continue filling that role of "translator".

Now Seth also seems to suggest that the general contractor might even be considered a specialist role itself but then... what role isn't?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I agree and posted something similar on my blog in response to this article. Being too much of a specialist can give you tunnel vision. And, when you're in a tunnel it can be very hard to connect with others who aren't in there with you. And if you can't connect, you can't do business well.

Amanda Moore
Virtual Assistant