Think about the most successful team you’ve been a part of. A team that worked together really well, showed flexibility, solved problems in creative ways and served up productive solutions to challenging situations. What was the makeup of that team? What different perspectives, backgrounds and experiences were represented?
At Aclate, we place a high value on building strong teams that can fulfill our commitment to customer success, with agility and innovation, similar to the ideas explored by David Epstein in Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World (2019).
A generalist’s background includes a wide and diverse set of experiences, perspectives and interdisciplinary learning. This background often gives generalists an edge in adapting to complex, changing situations. A specialist, on the other hand, is trained to do something very specific, and draws from a possibly more limited perspective, meaning they possess fewer tools in their toolkit for analyzing and solving problems.
This book provides research and analysis of why generalists “are primed to excel” and why so many of the world’s most successful individuals are generalists rather than specialists. You may already be intuitively using and applying some of these ideas in your own hiring and team building. Let’s look at some of the central concepts in the book and how they can be applied to organizations.
Key Ideas to Consider For Building Strong Teams
Range, The Generalist and the Specialist
Many experts have always said early specialization is the way to go. Pick one sport, or one job, and perfect it, through thousands of hours of practice and training. Tiger Woods is a great example of this, holding a golf club in his hand from a very early age. But what Epstein found in his research was that Tiger Woods is an exception, not the rule.
For another sports example, consider the 2014 German Soccer Team, winners of the World Cup. You’d guess that the men on that team had all been playing soccer, and only soccer, since they were toddlers. But that wasn’t the case. As youths, they played other sports and non-organized soccer. For the most part, they were late specializers. So how did they win the World Cup? With agility and the ability to adapt that comes from being generalists, or having range.
And in the same way that range helps individuals become stronger and better, range helps teams act with more creativity, innovation and flexibility.
Kind and Wicked Worlds
The book also puts forth the idea of dividing the world according to the conditions prevalent for generalists or specialists to thrive. The “kind” world is one where you can practice and get better, and patterns repeat as expected. Golf, in the Tiger Woods example, is a “kind” sport. Thousands of hours of practice result in improvement. But the majority of the world is complex, unpredictable and changing, the “wicked” world, where constant pivoting is needed to advance successfully. Being able to excel in a wicked world, apply knowledge broadly, and tolerate ambiguity are solid skills that you should look for when hiring and building teams.
The Outsider's Advantage
An outside, non-specialized perspective brings tremendous value. An outsider contributes different ways of thinking, bigger-picture viewpoints, analogies from other disciplines, and an openness to ideas a specialist might dismiss. Consider how bringing an outsider’s perspective to the table could help your business solve problems and innovate.
The above concepts resonate strongly within our team at Aclate. We solve problems and serve customers through agile, creative, and innovative thinking and approaches. Interested in learning more? Be sure to check out our recent webinar The Rise of the Generalist: Building Agile and Innovative Teams where Aclate CEO Chris Miller shares his thoughts on the value of building agile and innovative teams with range.