Who provides competitive advantage to companies? Generalists? Specialists? Both? Neither?

I’m always on the hunt for a good new business book, and I’m currently reading “Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World” by David Epstein. As somewhat of a generalist myself (albeit in technology) I can relate to much of what Epstein writes.

In the corporate world, there tends to be a higher value placed on specialization. Need a product manager? A services delivery manager? A sales manager? A requisition is opened for one with 20 detailed job requirements and an applicant must meet all of them to even be considered. In many cases this level of specialization is desirable, possibly even required.

But not always.

Trees or Leaves Problems?

It’s what I call the “forest, trees or leaves” problem.

The English writer and playwright John Heywood first documented the proverb “see the forest for the trees” in 1546. Nowadays it’s usually used in a negative context. “He can’t see the forest for the trees” implies that someone is too close to the problem to see the big picture.

When tackling a very specialized problem, this level of detail is needed. Sometimes it’s not even a “tree problem” but a closer look is needed – at the leaves themselves.

In my experience, when someone is new to an organization, they have the ability to see the forest. After a period of time (around 12 months) they become too engrained in how the company works and can no longer see the forest. They can only see trees and leaves.

The problem arises when trying to solve something strategic in nature. This might be a cross-functional issue that spans multiple teams. It might be something outside the experience base of the team members. Solving this problem means you need someone to look at the forest, and because the team members were hired to be specialists it’s tough to do.

Coming back to the book I mentioned earlier – there’s an interesting quote: “Specialization is obvious: keep going straight. Breadth is trickier to grow.”

Especially if you hire for specialization! You are prioritizing depth over breadth.

T-Shaped and I-Shaped People

Epstein also describes the difference between a “T-shaped person” and an “I-shaped person”. An I-shaped person is a traditional “narrow but deep” specialist. A T-shaped person is one who is wide but has access to depth via others already in the organization.

TechCXO is full of partners with T-shaped expertise, especially those with broad operating experience across multiple domains. I count myself in that list.

A T-shaped person will provide a competitive advantage to companies.

Day-to-day, companies can leverage specialists in the roles where they are strongest. They can bring in a TechCXO partner to assist with wider T-shaped problems that cross functions. They don’t need to have specialized domain expertise as that already exists.

The other advantage to a company: you can get access to a T-shaped executive as needed, on demand. You don’t need to change your hiring practices. You don’t need to sacrifice domain expertise and specialization.

Do you need help in seeing the forest? I and other partners at TechCXO are just a phone call away and can assist you in determining your requirements.