Managers love to reward hyper-specialization. But is it better to hire for general problem-solving abilities?
About a month ago, my wife and I hosted our first book club. It was nothing fancy, just some pizza, wine, and one fascinating book: Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, by David Epstein.
In it, Epstein makes the case that hyper-specialization — something instilled in all of us since grade school — might be overrated. Instead, he believes we should encourage range.
Through vivid examples and research, he illustrates that some of the greatest minds (CEOs, scientists, business people, and athletes) have achieved their success through a process of meandering, experimentation, and cross-disciplinary learning (Epstein calls it “sampling”) — until they find the perfect match.
While we discussed Range at length with our guests, I couldn’t help but think about the implications Epstein’s book has on building teams and finding leaders in startups. I began wondering, should CEOs be hiring generalists or specialists?
What are generalists?
Generalists — or people with range — use lateral thinking that helps them to see problems differently and enables them to find uncommon solutions.
In one illustration, Epstein spends time with Philip Tetlock, author of Superforecasting. Tetlock studied why some people were better forecasters than others. He tracked the performance of some 2,000 individuals to determine the factors. What he found was that there are two types of people, which he dubs “hedgehogs” and “foxes.”
“Hedgehogs are people who make predictions based on their unshakeable belief in what they see as a few fundamental truths,” Tetlock explains. “Foxes, by contrast, are guided in their forecasts by drawing on diverse strands of evidence and ideas. Hedgehogs know a few big things, foxes know lots of little things. When new information comes to light, a fox is likely to adjust her forecast, where a hedgehog will likely discount the new data.”
The generalists — or “foxes” — see being wrong as an opportunity to learn new things. This is because people with range, as Epstein puts it, see complexity in what others mistake for simple cause and effect: “They see the probabilistic (not deterministic) nature of most seemingly cause and effect relationships.”
What are specialists?
In contrast, specialists may be vulnerable to poor decisions due to their myopia and inability to “drop their tools.” According to Epstein, specialists use the same “hammers” to solve any problems they see because they tend to see all problems as “nails.” They may stick to predictions even after they have ample evidence offering alternative views, and can even make decisions that result in loss of life. (The Challenger disaster is one deadly example.)
Put another way, specialization has a problem that can exacerbate with time. Specialized teams achieve efficiencies that can seem great, but can also make them susceptible to weaknesses when faced with new, unfamiliar problems or crises. They are less flexible and less able to apply learnings from other disciplines.
So should CEOs build teams of generalists or specialists?
To answer this question for myself, I decided to look at my own career and the teams I have formed in the past.
I am a computer scientist by training. I knew I wanted to be a software engineer ever since I was in junior high school. It was a brand-new discipline, and I attended the first public school that included a computing lab. One of my teachers noticed my proclivity and mentored me. I convinced my dad to buy me a TRS-80, and the rest is history. I went on to get my master’s degree from Cornell in computer science, expecting to become a professional computer programmer. I started my career at Intel, and in less than three years, I left to follow my yearning to be an entrepreneur.
I ended up seeing myself more as a businessman than a programmer. I just didn’t like the idea of sitting behind a desk, coding, for years. While at Cornell, I took business classes, art history, entrepreneurship courses, communications classes, dance classes, and economics just in case I wasn’t going to end up loving the software life, and it seems I was right to do so. I haven’t written a line of code in close to 20 years now.
Instead, I have led three different startups, across varying fields. Today I helm a company in the renewable energy space that merges this staid industry with a transformational technology — blockchain.
So I appear to be a generalist. Let’s explore how that’s impacted my management style.
How I’ve structured my teams
As a manager, I often extol the importance of a repeatable, data-driven hiring process. I always say, “Hire someone who has already done what you need them to do, because you don’t have time for growth.”
But, when I take an earnest look back at some of my companies, my teams were never full of 100% specialists. For example, at FirstBest, the insurtech company I cofounded, we actually prided ourselves on having specialized insurance expertise (hedgehogs) and deep-technology people with broad experience (foxes).
I can remember countless times when we were working on a gnarly customer problem.
We almost always put one of our best engineers — a generalist — in a room (full of pizza and Coca-Cola, his favorites). We then invited a specialist, who had a few decades of insurance experience (she preferred beer) to join him and “crack the code.” And it always worked.
On my management team, I also had a combination of generalists and specialists. This revelation surprised me, because I had thought my companies contained such specialized niche players. But even in my current company, we have teams comprising both foxes and hedgehogs.
“The next time you are stuck on a problem, try giving it to someone outside the required area of specialty.” — David Epstein
Finding the right mix
Thinking about this has helped me realize that teams made up of leaders with range and of specialists are the most productive and successful teams. They are more innovative and make better decisions. Epstein shares countless examples in Range of successful technology companies like 3M and Nintendo that benefit from combining lateral thinkers with vertical thinkers:
“Eminent physicist and mathematician Freeman Dyson styled it this way: We need both focused frogs and visionary birds. ‘Birds fly high in the air and survey broad vistas of mathematics out to the far horizon,’ he wrote in 2009. ‘They delight in concepts that unify our thinking and bring together diverse problems from different parts of the landscape. Frogs live in the mud below and see only the flowers that grow nearby. They delight in the details of particular objects, and they solve problems one at a time.’ As a mathematician, Dyson labeled himself a frog, but contended, ‘It is stupid to claim that birds are better than frogs because they see farther, or that frogs are better than birds because they see deeper.’ The world, he wrote, is both broad and deep. ‘We need birds and frogs working together to explore it.’ Fortunately, he believes it is possible, even today, even at the cutting edge, even in the most hyper-specialized pursuits, to cultivate land where both birds and frogs can thrive. I can attest to this.”
The next time you are stuck on a problem, try giving it to someone outside the required area of specialty. The next time you are unsure about what field you should focus on, sample a few before deciding (or don’t force yourself to decide). The next time you are forming a team, consider the makeup: An all-specialists team might be a recipe for disaster, so think mosaic, not uniform.