The mindset of the generalist versus the specialist

With technical backgrounds, you and I are likely to be specialists. We’ve spent our time working on certain kinds of problems, in certain kinds of applications. We have a recognizable expertise. We use that expertise to earn respect and trust, which translates to even more exciting opportunities.

There’s a problem viewing the world strictly as a specialist. We lose the ability to integrate, to explore different classes of problems, to coordinate the efforts of separate teams. Our toolbox only contains a hammer, and every obstacle we face looks more and more like a nail.

As a generalist, you get the benefit of a broader perspective. You appreciate scale. Some problems are interesting, but tiny and irrelevant to our stakeholders. Other problems look boring and trivial, but secretly keep us from achieving great things.

The generalist also has a problem, though. Insufficient expertise means the generalist can’t identify helpful versus unhelpful. The generalist has trouble recognizing a critical breakthrough. The generalist can’t assess degrees of difficulty, and thus can struggle prioritizing efforts.

With your technical background, you’re inclined to be a specialist. That’s a good thing. But don’t forfeit¬†your perspective. Zoom out occasionally. Don’t lose the forest for the trees. Think about how your project fits into the larger goals of the company and its customers. Think about how workstreams intersect and guide each other.

Making the transition to a business role means keeping the expertise that makes you special, but finding clever ways to target that expertise at nontraditional problems. The first step is keeping your head up, and your eyes open. Find new ways to use your problem-solving hammer. Then start finding new tools for your toolbox.

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