3 people with 3 different perspectives

Experts Improve Products, Generalists Create Breakthroughs – You Need Both!

You might think that only product-specific experts can develop your next big thing. Think again. You need to add some generalists to the mix.

Gray McCord

March 19 th 2020 | 5 minute read

Back during the last Internet bubble (think drive-by venture capital and sockpuppets), I was part of a team that was developing high-reliability systems for the telecommunications industry. My manager at the time called me into his office for a chat about what he was looking for in his team.

“Gray,” he said, “We are going to change the Telecom world and the only way we can do that is with a team that is absolutely expert in Telecom and only Telecom. I don’t want any generalists. I want people who are an inch wide and a mile deep.

The message was clear. He believed that the only way to “change the world” was with specialization and narrow focus. I disagreed then and I disagree now. In fact, when your focus is too narrow you can be blinded by your own experience. Not to mention you run a high risk of missing important opportunities because of it. You don’t change the world that way.

Designing for a Single Market Leads to a Team that Understands Only That Market

The issue here is not one of expertise. When you are developing products, it would be foolish to rely on a team without the skills and talent necessary to create them. Let’s say I want to develop a product that consists of electronics, an enclosure system, and software. I would most certainly use the best designers, engineers, and supply chain I could find to ensure the product delivers a great user experience when it gets to market. The problem is how that expertise is used and focused.

Let’s go back to my old boss for a minute. Why did he believe so strongly he needed specialization? In this particular case, it came directly from the sales process used to land our big customers. In order to get the business, sales practices were used that included going to great lengths to reassure potential customers that they should have complete faith in our ability to deliver. A big piece of that reassurance was proving that we knew their markets better than they did. We also had to show we were experts at designing and delivering the types of systems they desired. To back that up, we focused on hiring people who had extensive telecom experience. Naturally, there were unintended consequences.

At the time, we were selling our products to a wide variety of customers. When we chose to focus on telecom exclusively, all of that changed. By hiring mostly from the telecom industry, we gradually morphed into the narrowly focused team that the boss desired. This also caused us to transform our internal processes to match the needs of these new customers. Some of our existing team members became telecom experts over time, while others became unhappy with this narrowing focus and left for greener pastures. We became experts in creating and selling telecom infrastructure equipment.

Specialization Leads to Incrementally Better Products, not Innovative Ones

Two things went wrong with this approach. The first was beyond our control: the telecom bubble burst, and our customers slowed their purchases dramatically. Second, and more importantly, our product designs became more and more incremental – a little faster, some more I/O, a modified UI.

In an increasingly competitive market, not only was there less overall opportunity, the innovation and creativity that attracted our customers in the first place had all but vanished. We were truly experts, but we were no longer innovating the way we once were. We could no longer see outside of the bubble we had created around ourselves.

So what does this mean for you? Well, if all you believe you need to do is create better versions of what you already make, then being an inch wide and a mile deep might be for you. Your products will get better. You won’t have to spend a lot of time explaining product functionality to your customers. You might even become hyper-efficient at creating your products. All of which is wonderful, right up until the time someone comes out of nowhere with a radically new product that puts you out of business.

On the other hand, if you want to be able to create something that really shakes things up (especially your competition!), you should consider a different approach. Focus on leveraging driven, high-skill generalists who have the ability to learn fast and solve diverse challenges instead of building super-deep specialization.

Specialization is useful in the context of technical skills but hinders your ability to create game-changing products. Build or hire a team that can look at a situation and bring the broadest possible range of problem-solving experience to create innovative solutions. Have at least some people on board who have “never made one before.”

In simple terms, specialists tend to know if it can or can’t be done. Problem-solvers will figure out how to get it done. You need more problem-solvers.

Generalists Create New Worlds, Specialists Fine-Tune Existing Ones

Tesla Model 3

How about some examples? Think the Tesla electric car idea came from existing automakers? Nope. Surely Amazon created the Kindle and changed the way we read because the founders all had years of experience working for book publishers, right? Negative. Think of all the record shop owners Apple hired to create the iTunes service; probably none. These breakthrough products were only made possible with the contributions of people who were decidedly not experts imported from existing competitors.

generations of i-devices

It’s risky to accept that non-specialists might just hold the key to your next big thing. After all, you’ve spent a career successfully creating products for your markets. You know what your customers want and how to deliver it to them, right? Outsiders can’t possibly tell you anything new. You’re an inch wide and a mile deep. And you will be quite successful – for a while, anyway.

But at some point, someone who’s a kilometer wide and a meter deep is going to create a product that will put you out of business. You will never see it coming even though it’s in plain sight to everyone else. Companies like Blockbuster, Polaroid, Eastman Kodak, and Borders have unfortunately experienced this. Learn from their mistakes.

Borders going out of business

Keep Your Experts and Add Some Generalists to Your Team

First of all, do not get rid of your experts. Instead, augment them with people and teams that bring different perspectives to the markets you serve and the challenges you need to solve. Sprinkle these generalists into your development teams and make sure you give them plenty of support, or they’ll start to feel like outcasts and leave before they can help. Hire outside firms if you need to, but don’t choose the ones that only work with you and your competitors. Above all, keep an open mind, and they will help you leave your comfort zone to become more nimble.

Keep your “mile of depth” where it makes sense, but make sure you expand that “inch wide” as far as possible so you can create change on your terms.

About the Author

Gray McCord – M3 CTO