Is It Better To Be A Specialist Or Generalist?
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" (https://versatilistperspective.blog/)? 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.
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.