Generalizing Specialists

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The term “generalizing specialists” has come to mean an individual who has a particular area of deep expertise but also has experience in a large number of other areas that may not be directly related to their core area. This type of person typically has strong talent in their specialty but also has a generally strong talent for learning new skills and ideas quickly. The origin of the term seems to be in the software industry referring to programmers who can do other software-development related tasks.

In self-organizing teams, a generalizing specialist is a more valuable team member than a pure specialist. The pure specialist often has an attitude that they should not need to do work outside their specialty. This can be destructive to the team’s morale. On the other hand, the generalizing specialist is willing and able to learn new skills – to stretch as the needs of the team change. And since change is natural, this is an essential attitude for team members.

However, we are usually trained, and strongly encouraged to have a deep specialty. This approach to education and training is a natural consequence to the typical organizational model for work and society. Therefore, if a team is converting to agile work methods, people need to be coached to stretch themselves and learn new things. For some people, particularly those who already have multiple hobbies outside work, this is an easy transition to make. For others, it is a very difficult transition. In some extreme cases, this may call for the removal of someone from the team. (Note: I have never seen this myself and I only mention it with great reservation. I strongly feel that only those who could be called “ill” will be so incapable of changing their way of working. For other recalcitrants, it is usually a matter of motivation.)

Other terms that are similar to “generalizing specialist” include “craftsperson”, “renaissance man”, and “polymath“.

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