The Specialized Generalist or T-Shaped People

Jess McMullin of bplusd has posted an interesting reflection and quote on "being a generalist". I believe he has hit the nail right on the head and has touched on one of the most relevant developments for people engagin in business & design.

There’s a seduction to being an expert, an assumption in society that credibility relies on deep (and narrow) expertise. However, for people operating at the edges, intersections, and overlaps where innovation thrives, being a generalist is far more powerful.

Jess' quote illustrates that being a generalist nowadays is harder than ever before despite their powerful role in business & innovation. Generalists that can connect seemingly distant pieces to a coherent whole and are characterized through their analytical brilliance first of all impress people that are like them. Yet, to survive and strive in a world dominated by specialists they have to become what I call the "specialized generalists". These are the people that have an open mind, a multi-disciplinary approach and are capable of rapidly acquiring specialist skills and knowledge in a minimum of time.

Today broad thinking, general knowledge and the mastering of a set of conceptual tools alone is not sufficient anymore. Why? Because a generalist with these skills might be able to come up with interesting and innovative ideas, but he will not be able to convince and seduce the specialists. To truely succeed, getting a following among the latter is indispensible.

Thus, the "specialized generalists" has to be able to perform a split between facilitating a mulit-disciplinary approach and seducing teams of diverse specialists with a display of deep knowledge. If he can achieve that, I believe he will be able to unluck hidden creative potential and achieve impressive cross-fertilization among disciplines, diverse teams and domain specialists.

There is already quite a buzz around these types of "specialized generalists". Tim Brown of the design firm Ideo and author of "The Art of Innovation" takes it from the other angle. In an article in Fast Company magazine (hat tip to Scott Weisbrod for the reminder) Brown writes about the specialist who is able to break out of his discipline and apply the lens of a generalist. He calls them "T-shaped people":

We look for people who are so inquisitive about the world that they're willing to try to do what you do. We call them "T-shaped people." They have a principal skill that describes the vertical leg of the T -- they're mechanical engineers or industrial designers. But they are so empathetic that they can branch out into other skills, such as anthropology, and do them as well. They are able to explore insights from many different perspectives and recognize patterns of behavior that point to a universal human need. That's what you're after at this point -- patterns that yield ideas.

In my own experience I realized that I have to be able to seduce domain specialist with concepts that are familiar to them if I want to engage in a worthwile discussion. Talking directly about a topic I'm interested in rarely leads to a lively discussion, while tackling exactly the same topic from the specialist's starting point often proves successful. However, this only works when I can give the specialist the impression that I understand the rules & functioning of his domain. I experienced this again and again during the conferences I participated in when I worked on my PhD dissertation on business models.

By nature the topic of business models is interdisciplinary because it covers areas ranging from marketing, to operations over finance and technology. While still at academia I participated in business strategy and information systems conferences, but sometimes I even went to events close to software engineering. At first, I felt terribly insecure because I didn't really fit into any one of these disciplines. But with time I realized the power of not fitting in - I learned about the concepts applied in one area and started to see their potential for another area. However, it was an eternal struggle to stay knowledgeable enough in each domain to be taken seriously by the so-called specialists...

This struggle still goes on in my current business design practice. However, it is a struggle I quite enjoy since I can learn about new concepts and knowledge day after day...

(T-photo by Theresa Asereht found on under a creative commons license)