Is it better to be a specialist or a generalist?

Is it better to be a specialist or a generalist?

In a world where you move around many jobs, and look to shape your own careers, it's an interesting question to ask yourself whether you want to be a specialist or a generalist.

For clarity, a specialist is defined as a person who concentrates primarily on a particular subject or activity, and is highly skilled in this field, whereas a generalist is a person competent in several different fields or activities.

For me, I think I'm firmly in the generalist camp, which you can see from my career path.

I'm on my fourth career, having been a professional sportsman, a cinema manager, a recruiter, and then managing digital / software products. 

On the surface they don't appear to have much in the way of crossover, other than the soft skills of team working, communicating, organizing and managing.

Even in my most recent product focused career, I'd also consider myself a generalist and that shows itself in the kind of organization I work within and the activities that I have done in those roles.

I've worked in startups and organizations with no previous product function, which has meant that when I've joined I've been responsible for a wide range of activities: from user research and product design, through playing my part in scrum teams, and on to strategic product management. 

This has worked fine for me as I like variety in my roles. 

One day I'm dealing with customers and how they interact with my products, and the next I'm creating wireframes. I might be planning for the next twelve months of product development and then I'm addressing questions about the intricacies and efficiencies of a sign up form.

I've been approached for roles before which I've thought would be too specialist for me, such as a product manager for customer engagement and product manager for growth, and to me these sound like there's a lot of focus in one area, and although the ability to be a specialist in this area would be really beneficial. I'm just not interested in becoming a specialist in just one area.

Pros & cons of being a generalist

There's a quote from Jess McMullin in relation to this specialist and generalist debate, and he says “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.”

I tend to believe in this, as I think a wide variety of knowledge helps you make connections between different areas and make things that simply couldn't be seen by someone who only specialized in one area.

As a generalist, as I've found in my careers, it's easier to transfer from one role to another, as your skillset is wider (albeit shallower). My skills in general management of a cinema have been useful as a product manager, in running teams, determining business opportunities, and communicating with groups.

However, perhaps the biggest downside of being a generalist is that you are likely to be more replaceable than some. 

Can my employer go out and find a new product owner who can write some user stories, manage stakeholder relationships, and support the development team. Absolutely! 

This means you need to work hard to show your employer how you do deliver value to the business, whereas specialists are deemed to give value through their inherent knowledge.

Pros & cons of being a specialist

I do however, envy people who are real specialists in their field. 

It must be a great feeling to be the "go to person" whenever a particular subject comes up. The specialist has the opportunity to lead their field and be able to push that area further than it has been pushed before.

There is also the thought that as a specialist you could have the ability to earn more money, as specialization often takes longer, and the specialist roles are narrowly defined, which reduces the potential pool of candidates and results in salaries that tend to be higher, even at entry-level.

The downside of specialization include the fact that what happens if your specialism becomes less important, or even obsolete? Could you be replaced by technology or do your skills have less value than they used to? 

Being in a specialism, you can reach the point where there is limited flexibility in your career, as you can find it hard to switch to another area once you are so far down the line in one area.

The future

Lev Kaye, in his 2014 research into specialism versus generalism found that:

"Generalists will find it harder and harder to get hired".


"Specialists are under threat from software and robots." 

He then went on to conclude that: 

"Two types of people will own the future: Generalising-Specialists and Specialising-Generalists."

"Imagine you hired a Specialist who was great at one particular function, and over time you found out he or she was also good at handling a broader range of duties, and eager to grow? You’d be thrilled, and you’d want to work with that person a long time. Now imagine you had in your organization a Generalist who wore multiple hats and could handle a range of duties, but who also spent time acquiring greater proficiency in certain specific skills? You’d be equally thrilled, and you’d want to work with that person a long time."

These are our Generalizing-Specialist, and our Specializing-Generalist.

I can see this happening with me a little, having had my last three roles all focused around putting in place product management structure and process into organizations. For businesses that need to get a hold of their product development, they need someone who knows where the important wins can be found quickly and how to get teams onboard with the new ways of working.

This isn't the job for a product manager who has been focused on growth or customer engagement.

So maybe I'm not a generalist, I'm a Specializing-Generalist.

What are you?