Is It Better To Be A Specialist Or Generalist?


In consulting, is it better to be a specialist, generalist or hybrid? Why?

Consulting Services
Consulting en management
Expert Advisor
Expertise in strategic planning
Vic Clesceri
15 months ago

6 answers


Specialist, by all means. It's easier to keep you competitive advantage on a few specific, high value disciplines versus keeping that for "all" of them.

Donato Mangialardo
15 months ago
Thanks Donato Mangialardo Within a consultancy or a company, do you maintain the same answer in terms of the level of the individual (e.g. leader vs. doer)? I've tended to believe that leaders should be generalists with teams of specialists. Thoughts? - Vic 15 months ago

Vic Clesceri - it is not an either/or question; it is really a spectrum, and the best place to be is right in the middle. Perhaps you've heard of the "versatilist" ( Originally coined by Gartner, this is one of my principal areas of interest concerning the development of expertise among knowledge workers.

The challenge with a specialist is they increasingly become trapped within a rote, rigid mental model making it very difficult to adapt to change, let alone be innovative in their own right (as one of the famed Mayo Brothers is reported to have said, "A specialist knows more and more, about less and less"; to which has been added "until they know absolutely everything about absolutely nothing"). Specialists are great to have, but only when it comes to executing within their specific domain.

A generalist falls on the other extreme, where they easily adapt, but their lack of depth often leads them astray, mutes their ability to execute, and reduces efficienty - their mental models have no depth. Generalists lack the details necessary to make great leaps. Generalists are great at organizing the troops, but don't innovate or execute well.

A versatilist, on the other hand, has the tools to become a specialist/expert in multiple areas, while maintaining perspective and influence from more than one area. This is where innovation, strategy, and dynamic change truly happens as the versatilist has sufficiently complex multi-domain mental models allowing them to recognize and apply solutions from one domain in the context of another. They see not only both the forest as well as the trees, but can also recognize patterns and similarities neither the generalist or specialist can. Versatilists are perfect for today's world, able to organize, innovate, and execute. It is what life-long learning is all about.

The sad part, of course, is very few people understand the value of this, especially when it comes to hiring. We insist on hiring executives with years of specialist knowledge in a single domain (operations, sales, finance, etc) or broad generalist knowledge lacking sufficient detail. I firmly believe this is why so many transformation projects never do much good.

Kenneth Salchow, Jr.
15 months ago
Thanks Kenneth Salchow, MBA, DBA I’m aligned with this thinking. - Vic 15 months ago
I drew a line between raw materials and customers years ago. My goal was to work within as many business disciplines along that value chain to understand 1) their impact on a P&L and 2) how execution within those functions impacted overall corporate strategy. This provided me a generalist background but I’m a specialist in talent development, strategy and analytics. - Vic 15 months ago

Specialist. By definition. The rise of management consulting was based upon solid and distinctive skills. The fall of management consulting nowadays is caused by the foolish idea that the management consultant must first of all be a Powerpoint artist and then someone able to prepare a presentation about everything after 1-2 days of googling. Sad but true. This is the reason why in many cases small, focused consultancy boutiques or single freelancers might be more successful than traditional, established and unflexible temples of management consulting.

Daniele Vanzanelli
15 months ago
Totally agree on niche, boutique consultancies. I’m involved with one where our “generalist” hat is to uncover root cause issues in business processes and our “specialist” hat is to develop tools and solutions for these issues. - Vic 15 months ago

Both are needed, regadless.

Tahir Iqbal
15 months ago

Remember the concept that people needed to have done 10,000 hours in a particular field to be considered a specialist? This has recently been debunked and the feeling is that generalist is a better position to be in.

David Cottrell
15 months ago
David Cottrell - I remember that. Malcolm Gladwell popularized it; however, he misunderstood the studies led by Anders Ericsson, which Ericsson has tackled in his book "peak". In fact, my own research was based, partly, on demonstrating that this number, or any prescribed number of hours of practice, is arbitrary and not based on anything factual. - Kenneth 15 months ago
Also, David Cottrell, just because this supposed rule was debunked is a false premise for suggesting that a "generalist" is better; determining how someone achieves expertise has no bearing on the value of such expertise once attained. - Kenneth 15 months ago

Generalist with deep knowledge in some areas-)) I think it is the best !

Julius Golovatchev
15 months ago
Exactly. So often today in business, politics, and even personal issues, we are told we need to be on one end of the spectrum or the other, completly ignoring the fact that the middle ground exists. BUT, the middle ground is where all the magic happens. - Kenneth 15 months ago

Have some input?