Partisans of specialists will tell you that they’re the most efficient at getting the job done in their area of expertise. In the time that a generalist has taken to figure out the nuances of the task at hand, the partisans say, the specialist will already be done. Why wouldn’t you want the most efficient person possible for the job?
Champions of generalists point to their versatility. In an Agile environment with rapidly changing conditions and objectives, the ability to pivot quickly is extremely valuable. These champions point out that generalists often have a better mental model or overview of all the component parts that make a project successful, rather than a myopic view of one piece. Why wouldn’t you want the most versatile, strategic thinker on your team?
Recently a third camp has arisen in the debate. This camp doesn’t want to choose, and instead looks for the unicorn who’s an expert at everything in order to achieve the maximum of both efficiency and versatility. This sounds good, but it’s notoriously difficult to find these unicorns.
So, which camp wins the debate? To answer that, let’s first look at the differences between generalists, specialists, and unicorns.
Generalists are people with moderate to deep knowledge of multiple disciplines within their chosen craft. They’re often motivated by curiosity and a desire to see the “big picture” rather than by the desire to master any one particular discipline, and they’re usually self-taught.
It’s important to keep in mind that even committed generalists will specialise in one or more aspects of their craft. A classic way to think of this is the “T-shaped skills” model first referenced by David Guest.
This model proposes that good generalists have enough knowledge to be useful in a wide variety of disciplines within their craft and to coordinate and collaborate with others (the horizontal bar of the T), but tend to have deep knowledge and expertise in a small number of disciplines (the vertical bar of the T).
These types of “T-shaped” generalists are very common in the crafts of product and UX, whose component disciplines (though still quite distinct) are more closely related than the disciplines within some other crafts.
Specialists are the masters of a particular discipline within a craft, motivated by the desire for mastery. This can drive them to move their discipline forward in ways not generally achieved by generalists or unicorns.
Specialists are often the people who speak at conferences or write books on their disciplines, and can be instrumental at drawing new practitioners into a discipline by presenting interesting ideas. They’re often found in consultancies and academia, which can enhance the awe in which they’re held.
Unicorns are the very, very rare people who are genuine experts in several disparate crafts like UX, UI, and development. They’re often confused for generalists, but because they’ve mastered several disciplines across multiple crafts it actually makes more sense to think of unicorns as a sort of hyper-specialist.
The idea of a “unicorn” with expert knowledge in several crafts doesn’t account for people who are generalists with deep knowledge (but not necessarily mastery) of disciplines sitting in two different crafts, like product and UX. These people are often stuck in a grey area — not “unicorny” enough for a hiring manager who wants a single person who will do everything with expert-level quality, and yet too specialised for hiring managers who want generalists who will stick to one craft instead of expecting to be involved in multiple areas. This often leads to the term “unicorn” being misused, and to the mistaken rejection of people in the middle of the unicorn-generalist continuum.
What does your company need: Generalist, Specialist, or Unicorn?
You only need a pure specialist if all of the following conditions apply: There is enough meaningful work at your company in their discipline for a specialist to be fully engaged for either a number of years (full-time employees), or a sufficient duration (contractors).
Do yourself and the specialist a favour and don’t hire them if there won’t be enough work in their discipline to make it worth the investment for both of you. A specialist will not turn into a generalist overnight, and usually won’t be happy if they’re asked to pinch-hit on things outside their discipline with no warning that this will be required. Also, because the specialist’s level of knowledge outside their discipline is likely to be lower than the generalist’s or unicorn’s, you simply won’t gain much benefit from misapplying a specialist.
The best use for unicorns (if you can even find one) is to lead the effort to design and build a single product in a sequential, time-limited way. This minimises the fragmentation of their time that comes from context switching, and thus maximises the value the company will receive from the unicorn’s multi-disciplinary expertise.
However, the “best use” scenario is almost never what actually happens, and thus what most companies need is not a unicorn but a generalist. Why? Simply because it’s not reasonable to expect one person to be the entire team when there are multiple projects and dependencies to manage.
It is, however, perfectly reasonable to expect one person to manage multiple projects. It’s reasonable to expect someone who really enjoys learning new aspects of their craft to step up and fill a knowledge gap when one appears in their team. It’s reasonable to expect someone with broad knowledge of a craft to mentor junior and mid-level practitioners.
Generalists are the people best suited to these tasks because their broad knowledge allows them to anticipate dependencies, to translate between specialists of different disciplines and to form an overall picture of what success looks like, and — oh yes — to step in and contribute when and where needed, even if they currently only have a moderate knowledge of a discipline. The best generalists learn and adapt extremely quickly, and are often the glue that binds a team together.
The best use of a generalist is in a strategic or leadership role within a larger company or as a solo practitioner or utility player in a smaller company with multiple products or projects. They’re more versatile than specialists, but suffer less from the pains of context-switching between different crafts than unicorns.
So generalists win the debate?
Generalists certainly come out sounding the best. But there’s got to be a downside, right? When is a bad time to hire a generalist?
It’s bad to hire a generalist when what you really need is a specialist or unicorn. You can’t expect a UX generalist to pick up an entirely new craft like software development within the tight timeframe that a tiny startup needs to design and build their first product, and equally you can’t expect a generalist to be very happy spending years using only part of their skills in a highly specialised role.
Outside of those two special contexts — and certainly for any team leadership role in product or UX — I’d recommend hiring a multi-talented generalist who has the humility to admit what they don’t know, a love of their craft that drives them to continually improve their skills in multiple disciplines, and the empathy to act as the glue and the translator that your team needs to produce its best work.