Should Your Startup Be Hiring Specialists or Generalists?
Managers love to reward hyper-specialization. But is it better to hire for general problem-solving abilities?
About a month ago, my wife and I hosted our first book club. It was nothing fancy, just some pizza, wine, and one fascinating book: Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, by David Epstein.
In it, Epstein makes the case that hyper-specialization — something instilled in all of us since grade school — might be overrated. Instead, he believes we should encourage range.
Through vivid examples and research, he illustrates that some of the greatest minds (CEOs, scientists, business people, and athletes) have achieved their success through a process of meandering, experimentation, and cross-disciplinary learning (Epstein calls it “sampling”) — until they find the perfect match.
While we discussed Range at length with our guests, I couldn’t help but think about the implications Epstein’s book has on building teams and finding leaders in startups. I began wondering, should CEOs be hiring generalists or specialists?
What are generalists?
Generalists — or people with range — use lateral thinking that helps them to see problems differently and enables them to find uncommon solutions.
In one illustration, Epstein spends time with Philip Tetlock, author of Superforecasting. Tetlock studied why some people were better forecasters than others. He tracked the performance of some 2,000 individuals to determine the factors. What he found was that there are two types of people, which he dubs “hedgehogs” and “foxes.”
“Hedgehogs are people who make predictions based on their unshakeable belief in what they see as a few fundamental truths,” Tetlock explains. “Foxes, by contrast, are guided in their forecasts by drawing on diverse strands of evidence and ideas. Hedgehogs know a few big things, foxes know lots of little things. When new information comes to light, a fox is likely to adjust her…