Generalists and specialists

The following extract is from a paper by the University of Michigan psychologist, Karl Weick, titled “Theory Building as Disciplined Imagination” (Academy of Management Review, 1989).

“Generalists, people with moderately strong attachments to many ideas, should be hard to interrupt, and once interrupted, should have weaker, shorter negative reactions since they have alternative paths to realize their plans. Specialists, people with stronger attachments to fewer ideas, should be easier to interrupt, and once interrupted, should have stronger, more sustained negative reactions because they have fewer alternative pathways to realize their plans. Generalists should be the the upbeat, positive people in the profession while specialists should be their grouchy, negative counterparts.”

This reminds me of Tim Brown and Ideo’s articulation of T-shaped people.

The concept defines two axes of knowledge: breadth and depth.

  • Horizontal people have broad but shallow knowledge. They know a little about a lot. In Weick’s terms, these are generalists.
  • Vertical people have narrow but deep knowledge. They know a lot about a little. In Weick’s terms, these are specialists.

Weick’s insight is that because specialists have invested a lot of time in a narrow field, they form strong attachments to their beliefs and react negatively when presented with new information that contradicts it.

As Dave Trott said in a post titled Experts:

“They know everything about everything and never need to listen to anyone else.”

Conversely, generalists have invested their time and effort across a number of fields and thus are more open to new, contradictory information.

When recruiting, Tim Brown looks for evidence of T-shaped people, that is, people with an expertise in one field as well as a deep curiosity in other fields.

Specialising helps them understand their field deeper.

Generalising keeps them open to new information, even if it doesn’t support their beliefs.

Being a generalist makes you better at being a specialist.

It stops you getting too attached.

It stops you from overvaluing the confirmatory and undervaluing the contradictory.

It helps to avoid the confirmation bias.

It opens them up to the idea of new information.

Karl Popper took the idea of generalising one step further.

He teaches us to not only be open to new ideas but to seek them out.
To actively pursue information that disproves our currently beliefs.

This, he argues, is the fastest way to getting to an empirical truth.

Socrates agreed.

Hey. I’m Alex Murrell. I'm a Planner at Epoch Design in Bristol where I help deliver highly creative, innovative and effective pack, instore and online communications for some of the world’s biggest FMCG brands. Want to know more? You can find me on Twitter or LinkedIn.

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