Generalist versus Specialist

Dave Gray is asking today about Generalists versus Specialist sociability. It’s an interesting topic; during the discussion he posted this diagram describing generalists and specialists approaches.

Dave made an important point, to say we are all generalists and specialists in different circumstances. I like the visualization but I feel like it doesn’t tell me what effect the different approaches produce. I don’t mean the outcome, but in how they approach it differently, what else is different other than breadth and depth?


I believe Generalists and Specialists approach defining goals, solving problems and designing solutions similarly. The difference is in what lenses they apply in the middle. In our quest to go from where we are to where we need to be we first diverge to seek options then we converge to find solutions. The Generalist goes for BREADTH when seeking options while the Specialist goes for DEPTH. The lens applied regulates how much they need to diverge and how soon they can converge to get to a solution.

In this very simplified white-board sketch I fail to convey the variability, but you could see how a generalist would stretch and go as wide as possible for options before converging into a direction to solve a problems, defining goals or designing solutions. The specialist, on the other hand, would likely not stretch as much but lengthen the process in his quest for depth.

Just a thought.

On somewhat but not entirely related topic, I really like Jared’s take on Specialist versus Generalist distinction in UX teams.

11 thoughts on “Generalist versus Specialist

  1. Dave Gray

    As you mention I think we all specialize in a few things and employ generalist approaches to understanding everything else. But I’m not sure I agree with your points. The whole point of being a specialist is to become really good at something: to do it better, faster, more efficiently than others. A natural outcome of specialization is that one tends to narrow one’s focus. At the extreme end of specialization one becomes the “best in the world” at some activity. In athletics this is quite clear because the rules and the measurements are very explicit.

    The whole point of becoming an expert in something is to shorten the process of discovery; to shorten the distance between problem and solution. In medicine you go to a specialist because you want an accurate diagnosis. You would only expect the specialist to take a long time to diagnose a problem if it was very unusual — most of the time you would expect a relatively quick answer because they had probably seen it before, or something like it.

    This is not to say that experts expend less effort than generalists. Quite the opposite. It takes a huge investment of time and energy to become expert in anything. However the whole point of all that effort is to become efficient at solving problems within the specialist’s domain.

  2. Livia Post author

    Well, I agree with you entirely. perhaps the word “how soon” is inadequate to express what I mean — it’s not lengthening the duration of the process, rather, the time spent FOCUSED on the solution (ie: the specialist looking at the system they are expert in and doing the diagnosis with that context in mind) , is where their time is spent, meaning, they will spend LESS time diverging, because their lens is narrowed down to the system they are expert in.

    Versus the generalist, who will seek out a few different frames of reference, perhaps looking at multiple systems – that’s where they spent most of their time first – then leap into narrowing things down, which STILL takes longer as they have more to synthesize.

    So yes, I agree. Comparatively, Specialist will spend less time than Generalist overall, but precisely because they apply a different lens to the situation, which narrows the problem and allow them to go deep.

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  4. Dorian Taylor

    I’ve been on a bit of a dichotomy jihad recently. Generalist vs. specialist is my second most loathed (after theorist vs. pragmatist and before extrovert vs. introvert). I gladly concede the two poles exist (in each of my examples), I just find their framing as poles to be lacking subtlety. Consider the following instead:

    Every project (or really every system) possesses an anatomy (requirements, behaviours, idiosyncrasies) which is partially known and partially unknown by everyone working on it. This anatomy can be divided any number of ways into partially-overlapping subsystems. Some of these subsystems are going to be familiar and well-understood by certain people and others will be familiar to other people. Certain subsystems will have an unconventional, possibly unique shape and require the people working with them to learn and communicate their properties ad hoc.

    When we introduce identity politics into the process, we unnecessarily cleave up the problem space. A “specialist” may be completely inept at the particular application of his or her domain expertise. A “generalist” likewise could easily spot patterns in the system to which others are blind. However, these roles could just as easily be reversed. I submit that ability to solve a problem depends exclusively on the complete acquisition of information, whether it is peculiar to it or applicable in principle.

  5. Jonk

    Specialists tend to see problems through the filter of their area of expertise – eg: surgeons cut, pathologists medicate. This may produce a fast result but sometimes at the expense of the bigger picture, when a more holistic view might have produced a better long-term result.

    So I’m saying, a generalist might seem less definite on an answer but it’s very likely they will offer a range of options that the expert never could. Then by all means bring in the surgeon, if that makes the most sense.

  6. Dave Gray

    This is for you Dorian,

    What’s wrong with poles? They simply define two ends of a spectrum.

    I don’t see specialist/generalist as “identity politics” but I do see them as approaches that are mutually exclusive. For any activity you engage in, professional or not, you can place your approach somewhere along that spectrum. The poles help define the activities.

    Specialization is about becoming more efficient. Generalization is about looking at/trying a lot of things, many of which will not deliver results. To the degree that you specialize, you can’t generalize, and vice versa.

    Consider the following:

  7. Dave Gray

    One more thought about poles: North and South are poles — they don’t so much define specific places as relational dynamics. You are neither “North” nor “South” but “more North” or “more South” depending on what you are defining yourself in relationship to.

  8. Livia Post author

    I like the drilling x mining frame Dave.

    I agree that this is not about identity politics – that’s why I pointed out Dave first made an important point to say we are all generalists and specialists in different circumstances; it’s about the frame of mind and choice of approach we use when in one or another mode.

  9. Dorian Taylor

    I see behaviour that is highly sensitive to context being marked, via epithet, as a property of the people exhibiting it. Unless I misinterpret, this suggests that the people exhibit this behaviour principally whether or not it is applicable to the context.

    What we seem to agree on is “if I don’t have much a priori information about system X I scan around the vicinity for clues; if I do, I make adjustments to realign my theory with reality”. I believe this is handled by the statement that we specialize in a few things and apply generalist approaches to understanding everything else.

    The rub occurs when we designate generalists and specialists in advance. This is particular in the equivocation of generalist to the proverbial jack of all trades, and the specialist as one in a particular field. My point is if the word is in your job title, it’s going to colour how you tackle a given problem—and I assert that any sufficiently complex problem will possess anatomy for which would-be generalists have ample experience and for which so-called specialists are clueless.

    A given problem space can possess an arbitrary number of sub-problems which are too obscure to be named, yet a given individual could well have experience with them, and thus be an ad-hoc specialist. The number of anonymous sub-problems can be surprisingly large, and they can be of crucial importance. If the problem space is a project upon which many people are collaborating, then the issue is exactly political.

    For a discussion on the decomposition of design problems, see Christopher Alexander’s book Notes on the Synthesis of Form, or the more concise A City is not a Tree (Part 2). Please also consider the following letter by Edsger Dijkstra.

  10. Trish

    Most of the comments have missed the point of the distinction between “generalists and specialists” The controversy doesn’t revolve around the question of whether one approach is better than the other.
    The mind of a generalist operates differently than that of a specialist. This difference probably is a wired difference. I am a Ph.D. in organizational psychology and my definition would be influenced by my field of study…as would others. The issue in the contemporary world is that we have far too many specialists and far too few generalists. Since we need both to solve the complex problems we face, it’s urgent that we encourage more generalists. Take one look at the social climate in mathematics, sciences and other disciplines that lean toward extreme specialization and you’ll find a rejecting climate toward men and women with generlist minds. Specialist minds become irritated with men and women who think differently. I imagine it’s the opposite in fields dominated by generalists. MY POINT: THE URGENCY IS TO WELCOME GENERALISTS INTO SCIENCE, MATHEMATICS, POLITICS, ECONOMICS, BUSINESS, ETC.

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