The generalist and the specialist – some thought-sparks!

Posted by on Jul 8, 2013 in Ethno Thinks | No Comments

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This post on Medium by Jon Gold on ‘how to work with a team of generalists’ (LINK:, sparked a weekend conversation on twitter about specialists vs generalists. In the conversation, the reference was made to another post, which shows the other side of the coin, when specialists are left behind as their field looks for generalists (LINK:

Inspired by what we found after a weekend away from the computer @dottitoellner and I had a spontaneous conversation touching on the following ideas/concepts …this is not meant to be a full blog-response to either of those posts or to the twitter conversation, but rather a collection of our thoughts sparked by the articles and discussion. If you agree, disagree and/or have some thoughts to add, tweet at us > @dottitoellner and @lenacorinna!


Lets start at the beginning: to go back to the first article that was tweeted in this conversation. the idea of a generalist working in a team of generalists – here we see a challenge of ownership. We should consider two kinds of ownership:

1. Horizontal ownership – by which we mean sharing the responsibility for a project on a meta level in a way that things can get moved forward

2. Vertical ownership – where one takes partial ownership over the whole, but is responsible for excellence happening in that one step or aspect of the project – this means drilling deep.

Both of these concepts are important in order to make things happen and to have a motivated work environment, it is important to share and have individual responsibility felt by all. So synching up both of these two concepts of ownership/involvement is the challenge here.

Maybe it is good if everyone is a generalist, but every generalist needs a (sub-)specialization…otherwise there can be no personal (or vertical) ownership. It is important to remember though that this sub-specialization doesn’t need to come from formal training, it can come from any other area or through other means…Personal responsibly needs to be encouraged as much as a shared collective one! In order to truly drive forward a project, you cant retire to saying ‘I’m a generalist’ but instead, you need to be willing to get your (mental) hands dirty and become the very expert that is needed …get out of the realm of ‘toying with things’ to make things more tangible.

This is what Jon calls ‘a generalist with a little bit more specialism on either extreme of the X/Y (fill in the blanks here depending on your industry) spectrum’ in his article. From our initial thoughts on this, the best scenario then would maybe be a team of specialists (or sub-specialists) with an interest in the bigger picture and who see the VALUE in the bigger-picture think (so specialists with a generalist attitude if you will). And you need one generalist, who has excellent communication and motivation skills to lead this team.


When we now look at the second post, in this case, being a specialist as we call it here, means leaving your generalists learner-attitude at the door…? Shouldn’t in any field, our attitude be that of an eternal learner? So even if you are a specialist, there are always new things to learn, and if the market requires new things…why not see this as an opportunity? As a chance to look at the things that are out there, find the ones that interest you and go for it….take your specialist skills, hold on to them and value them but seek the generalist’s attitude – see this as an inspiration not as a hurdle.

In the world we live in, its a question of ‘re-invent or re-produce’ – in order to productively work together in teams AND move things forward, we MUST be wiling to start from scratch, to always try something new, throw out all the old knowns and have the courage to say ‘I don’t know!’ This is not about reaching perfection it’s about re-invention – about embracing the experiments and being willing to take on board multiple influences from various directions.

Ultimately isn’t that what an ethnographer/designer/etc/etc/etc…what we all should be about in order to produce meaningful, new, impactful, innovative, (add your buzz-word of choice here) work…to be an eternal learner and communicator?


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