The Mythical Specialist

Apple_theory2_FritsALAs a consultant I often hear people tell about their needs for “a specialist” in one or another topic. They might need a specialist in Windows or in Project Management, but no matter what they are looking for, they are almost in panic over the risk of getting a generalist instead.

Quite interestingly they often do, at a closer examination, appreciate that the specialist has experience from different uses of his/her specialism. And that the specialist has been a specialist for some time and undergone a development as a specialist. Both actually broadening the specialist knowledge into something that could just as well have been described as generalism.

In other words, if someone is a specialist or a generalist is often just a matter of words – of which story you decide to tell about the one. As an example, Gandhi was a great specialist in non-violent opposition but he equally well could be described as a generalist of politics and country administration.

No specialist knows only one thing and no generalist knows all about everything.

But why are some people then so much focused on getting only specialist consultants?

For one, because they lack a sense of systems thinking. They do not see that every task involves multiple aspects of problem solving. When a plumber – in the eyes of some, being a specialist in plumbing – is installing something, like a new water tap, he/she needs to use spatial thinking for imaging the best way of drawing the tubes, temporal thinking in order to understand how to plan the work, material knowledge in order to know which kinds of metals can be combined and how, and lots of other skills and qualifications. It can easily end up with the fact that knowledge about water taps is the least of it all.

The plumber needs tons of skills, not just one. So a plumber is not by all standards a specialist. And even if this particular plumber in question is really just installing the same kind of water tap in the same kind of buildings, etc., maybe as part of a huge, life long building project, the plumber probably learned something more when being an apprentice. And for the major part of time, off-work, there are loads of things that the plumber could be doing, making him/her an expert in a thousand things.

In a modern work environment for most trades it is paramount that each and everyone involved can adapt to changes, as these are occurring on a permanent basis. Nothing will be done exactly like the last time, everything will need to be considered for the specific situation – and experience from different situations will come in handy, making a smooth transition from the old procedure to a new one possible.

We all know that, I assume, we just do not know that this requires a generalist. Because we do not think about it. I wrote earlier about how sharing thoughts requires thinking, and I can add to it that understanding and knowledge requires thinking too. Sticking to old dogmas will most likely help you find a specialist – which in your imagination immediately will be promoted to expert – and you might even believe for the rest of your life that no one else could have done the job.

You like such confidence in your own ability to find the right person for a job, and the more explicit you make the requirements for doing the job the easier it shows that you have found the exact right candidate – and should it turn out that the candidate fails to do the job in the way you wanted it, it was of course not due to you being too restrictive by demanding a too specialised person, no it was no doubt because the one was not the specialist he claimed to be.

This is one of those games we play – and one of the stories we like to tell each other – the one about being good at finding the right person, because we then obviously are being good at understanding our work and its needs. Hiring someone denoted as a generalist doesn’t give that same kind of satisfaction, since the one will do a lot of problem definition himself. So it will be his own earning that things go well – and then we are not able to take credit for it.

Another detail in this specialist vs. generalist consideration (a consideration many people do not have as they want only specialists for everything) is the question of how to even define a specialist: An example could be that Jane has 3 years of experience with Windows and is considered a Windows specialist. Joe also has 3 years of experience with Windows but then also 3 year of experience with Linux and 3 years of management experience. So Joe is not a Windows specialist? He might actually know more than Jane about the topic and has most likely been in situations where he needed to see Windows in a bigger context, maybe in relation to Linux and management.

The logic of wanting Jane instead of Joe for a Windows task is not quite easy to grasp but this is how many managers or recruiters prioritize. And so they do not get the best for the job.

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