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Specialist vs Generalist: The Start-Up Debate

“Jack of all trades, master of none” this is a saying that has haunted professionals for ages!

Specialisation, for as long as I can remember (and obviously before that too), has been something organisations search for in professionals. Specialisation has carried with it the notion that specialists are markedly superior to generalists and are able to add greater value in achieving organisational goals. Having a team of specialist this or that’s, has been the mark of success and great pride for many businesses.

Enter the fourth industrial revolution. Now more than ever before, specialist functions are being completely automated or at the very least uncomplicated by the introduction of guided software programs, user friendly interfaces, information (on anything) available in the blink of an eye and a plethora of other kaizen innovations.

Specialists by their very nature require a set of circumstances to be just so in order to perform their duties and add value to their organisations. The right environment, resources and tools are required for success to be attained and in the absence of these prerequisites, specialists find it hard if not impossible to perform their duties. It’s interesting to note as well that in terms of technological innovation as it impacts the workforce, the most impact has been felt in innovation as it relates to previously specialist functions.

Generalists however, hold the key to the future. With an adaptability and a flexibility to navigate complex and ever-changing business landscapes, seasoned generalists are able to lead organisations through the fourth industrial revolution which as most of us know, is a complex web of innovation, evolution and kaizen improvements. Generalisation though, in the absence of leadership ability is void of value. Being able to influence organisations and people, is a vital skill set that any professional (generalist or specialist) needs to possess in order to successfully grow themselves and their organisations.

So what does this mean for the entrepreneur looking to venture on their own and grow their own businesses. With specialist skill sets still required for success and generalists adaptability critical to long term success, does one preclude the other from success and if you’re either one, does this mean as an entrepreneur you’re more or less likely to succeed in business?

As with almost everything else in business and in life, the answer rest somewhere in the middle. The key to success here is to identify what you are, specialist or generalist and then purposefully surrounding yourself with a member of the opposite classification in order to both capitalise on your unique skill set and leverage the unique skill set of others. Generalists, for all their robust glory, cannot survive without input from specialists and specialists for all their meticulous propensities cannot hope to survive without input from generalists.

Generalists naturally find it easier to thrive in a start-up environment as it creates a platform for them to operate across multiple functions whereas specialists in some cases find it daunting to step out of their comfort zones. This is why so many successful start-up’s and SME’s are made up of partnerships between lethally good specialists and seasoned generalists. Again, the key is understanding in which category you fall and then being purposeful around enrolling a professional from the opposite side to your cause.

The pendulum is shifting for sure and as we move ever forward into the uncertain and exciting future, the time of the specialist as the game changer is coming to an end and the rise of the generalist has begun.

Some of today’s most successful generalists include: Elon Musk, Steve Jobs and Arianna Huffington and a few noteworthy generalists from the past are Ben Franklin, Leonardo Da Vinci and Marie Curie.

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