Undoubtedly, we are living in a world of ever-increasing hyper-specialization. The advantages of being a specialist rather than a generalist have become more than obvious ever since Henry Ford innovated the production line. However, the trend toward specialization is much older.
In the ancient world, most intellectuals (usually philosophers) were polymaths. Yet, as knowledge accumulates and the complexity of each field increases, it becomes increasingly difficult to be up to speed and to understand all knowledge branches deeply enough to be competent and productive.
Consequently, most modern professionals are specialized in very narrow fields of expertise and true generalist are exceedingly rare.
The effects of this trend are fully at work in the field of tech startups. Founders are often specialized in certain technologies or markets, which gives them the depth of understanding needed to be on the cutting edge of an industry in order to be able to innovate effectively.
Yet, being a startup founder is one of the last remaining jobs that force you to be a generalist as well.
The first reason for this is that early on in the life of a project you usually wouldn’t have the resources needed to hire specialists for every specific need of your startup. You’d have to do a lot of diverse work by yourself, which means you’d have to acquire diverse knowledge and develop various practical startup skills. If you don’t, you risk making your early-stage project too reliant on outside help.
You’d have to acquire a decent understanding of sales and marketing, financial planning and reporting, product research and development, technical skills applicable to your project, and of course – domain knowledge.
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That said, there is a second less intuitive but equally important reason being a generalist helps. Needless to say, startups rely on innovation, and innovation requires creativity. Having a wide breadth of knowledge makes being creative much easier.
In the 1990s, neuroscientist Kevin Dunbar set out to comprehend how scientific discoveries are made in practice. In a longitudinal analysis of numerous research labs, he determined which ones were able to produce novel knowledge—a scientific breakthrough—by utilizing unexpected results (anomalies).
He discovered that the most inventive labs were the ones that utilized several analogies from other scientific fields to the topic at hand. The teams in the experiment proved to be less innovative if they were more narrowly specialized.
This finding is very useful when it comes to building creative startup teams as a whole, but it is also applicable to founders. Being a generalist (ideally with diverse practical experience) would allow you to apply the mental models and practices from various disciplines to your project, which would help you to make your startup not only novel but effectively innovative.
As your project becomes more successful and grows you’ll have to do a lot less specialized work on your own as you’ll be able to hire people who are far better specialists than you. What you would always need to do, however, is to integrate the unique knowledge of all aspects of your business in order to make optimal decisions.
To do this, you’ll have to generate an impressive range of theoretical knowledge and practical competence, untypical of our modern world.
“You have people walking around with all the knowledge of humanity on their phone, but they have no idea how to integrate it.” – David Epstein, author of Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World