Would you a hire generalist over someone who specialises?
While flying last week, I listened to a HBR podcast that discussed Google’s approach to talent selection and management. One of the first topics of discussion was Google’s preference for hiring ‘generalists’ over ‘specialists’.
Google’s partiality for generalists stems from the fast changing nature of its business. The company sits at the forefront of innovation, both within its traditional realm of Internet search and but also with it’s seemingly outrageous side projects like its efforts to produce self driving cars.
The podcast suggests that Google tends to hire generalists because they believe these ‘learning animals’ are more flexible and bring an open mind to problem solving and this suits Google. I guess when you are doing something that’s never been done before past experience is a little less relevant.
The podcast also states that specialists tend to bring a certain bias to problem solving. This sentiment is perhaps summed up by this quote from Abraham Maslow (he of ‘ the hierarchy of needs’ fame):
“I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.”
The one thing I took away from this podcast was that while hiring generalists may work for Google, I’m not sure this logic applies across the board.
The age of the procurement specialist
In procurement for example, I believe there is a strong case for hiring specialists. As the procurement landscape continues to become more complex geographically, technologically and legally, I believe the role of sourcing specialists with niche skill sets will increase in prominence.
IT is a great example of a category that has got infinitely more complex to understand, let alone manage, over the last decade (ironically, thanks in part to the generalists at Google). Firms have become more reliant on their IT operations as a source of competitive advantage – therefore doesn’t it follow that someone with an intricate knowledge of this area becomes more valuable?
Clearly, the generalist vs. specialist argument is an oversimplification of a complex matter. Successful teams undoubtedly need a balance of both. But how can procurement teams ensure they get the balance right?
What’s basketball got to do with it?
Studies by Dr Long Wang of City University of Hong Kong have addressed the issue of balancing generalists and specialists both in the workplace and on the basketball court.
Wang suggests that we as managers (or basketball coaches) have a troubling tendency to compare generalists to specialists in isolation. This tendency, he argues, is counter productive.
Wang suggests we should be analysing both the worth of employees and basketball players in the context of a team. While a basketball all-rounder may out perform a specialist three point shooter in a one-on-one match up, this is not a fair indication of their effectiveness as part of a team. Moreover basketball, like business, is about achieving team results not individual accolades.
Have you got the guts to pick a three-point shooter?
Wang postulates that our bias towards generalists has a lot to do with our aversion to risk. Generalists are more defendable to managers than specialists are.
“If I was the general manager of a basketball team” Wang said, “it would be easy for me to justify hiring one great athlete after the next because you can [justify] their individual statistics really well,”
While comparing a three-point specialist to a more rounded basketball star may appear unfair at first glance, (three-point shooters tend to be less athletic, post fewer recordable stats and are generally less captivating) their impact on the team’s overall performance is huge. Ultimately it’s the team performance we are interested in anyway.
“Do you want five superior athletes, or one clunky, non jumping, great-shooting three-point shooter and four great athletes? In fact, the five great ones, on average, might each be better than this guy, but as a team you do better when you have a role player who can do something special.” Said Wang.
There is no hard and fast rule to follow when it comes to selecting generalists over specialists or vice versa. But, I think it’s important that we remember to evaluate candidates based on how they perform as part of a larger team and not just what they are capable of in isolation.