Generalists, specialists, hybrid and T-shaped people

Reading time: 7 min.
Author: Konstantin

The division between designers and developers is often explained as the difference between the creative right and the logical left brain hemispheres as if they almost would not interact with each other. Psychologists have broken the stereotype of left-right brain halves over the past decade multiple times. Popular psychology, though, continues using this myth as anargument in countless articles.[4]

In essence, there are self-help books that claim they will assist you to optimize the functions of one of the hemispheres, or even make the two halves stop their fighting with each other so you can finally relax. The truth is they are both well-connected in healthy people; they operate together and share information across the unique bridge.[6] They do, of course, specialize in different kinds of tasks; however, the real distinction between them is much more complicated. In fact, creative and rational decisions involve both hemispheres - playing music requires repetitive hand movements (considered to be left-brained) as well as improvising and being emotionally connected to the music (right-brained). Creativity involves applying imagination to some initial ideas, re-combining them, and solving problems in a novel but helpful way. In other words, being a specialist does not prevent you from specializing in other areas, too, learning and mixing ideas.[5][7]

Philosopher Isaiah Berlin in the 1950s wrote an article called "The Hedgehog and the Fox" by adopting the Greek poet Archilochu's famous principle: "the fox knows many things; the hedgehog one big thing." Berlin divided great thinkers in his essay into two categories: foxes, who have many different viewpoints, and hedgehogs, who have one perspective on the world. This essay was, in a way, sarcastic; still, it became a foundational part of thinking about the distinction between specialists and generalists:[1] those who often try unrelated and contradictory outcomes in one way, and those who connect everything to a single point. A generalist is a competent jack of all trades with different skills and capabilities, while the specialist's experience and expertise focus on a concrete area.

The separation into generalist and specialist species is also a known division in behavioral ecology. Generalist species are thriving in a wide variety of environmental conditions, and they thrive in a diversity of different resources. In contrast, specialist species require a particular type of food and specific items in their habitat. Species broadly vary from highly-specialized to broadly-generalist species.[3]

In real life, generalists have interdisciplinary knowledge, which boosts creativity and understanding of how things work. They understand better a problem and can perform better in second-order thinking in different conditions than the specialist can. Generalists often maintain interchangeable expertise, which enables them to choose their career more quickly, do different types of work, and adapt to a continually changing world dynamics.[1]

On the other hand, specialists are dependent on changes, while many related job titles are vanishing while technologies are changing, and risk the replacement by artificial intelligence in the coming years. Many of them have to learn different working expertise, start in a new field, and thus, this situation puts their personal growth under threat. Specialists with their deep understanding of subjects have benefits comparing to generalists - they can easier recognize and catch rising opportunities.[1][2]

Usually, the generalists in a team can struggle with the problems because no one has the expertise to resolve them. Similarly, a specialist is generally concentrated on a single subject, making them very useful at very particular topics. Specialists miss the problems which other specialists focus on, and as a result, can struggle to work with those other specialists efficiently.[13]

There is, nevertheless, a middle-point for specialists and generalists - generalizing specialist or a specialist in one area that holds a few general iterative skills. A generalizing specialist has a core competency that they know a lot about, and they are always learning new aspects of their work and related fields. A generalist has approximately identical knowledge of multiple subjects while generalizing specialist has an extensive understanding of one expertise field and depthless of several other ones, having an opportunity to improve the main competency while establishing a basis of interdisciplinary awareness. Generalizing specialists are often also referred to as craftspeople, multi-disciplinary developers, cross-functional developers, deep generalists, polymaths, versatilists, or even "renaissance developers".[1][13]

They also can be found under another name. Tim Brown, CEO of the IDEO design consultancy, in 1991, mentioned T-shaped people in his interview. T letter's vertical stroke represents the depth of skill and expertise in a single field that allows contributing to the creative process (an architect, a business specialist, an industrial designer, a social scientist, a mechanical engineer, etc.). In contrast, the horizontal bar is the collaboration across disciplines with relevant skills and interest in areas of expertise other than own. T-shaped people are adapting to the market, doing the same duties with fewer workers, help communicate more effectively, embracing human adaptability. The details, however, vary from one person to another. If some is starting the career path, then the skillset can be more of I person or specialist with no general knowledge, or of "-" dash person (generalist) with diverse expertise but no specialization. There also by X-shaped peopled, who are leaders and managers that can support diverse teams, focused on strategy and organization management, but we will not discuss it furthermore as not relevant here.[8][9][10][11]

The job market, in a meanwhile, reacts to changes happening in the world by creating "hybrid" jobs, or in other words, jobs for T-shaped generalized specialists and generalists. These new hybrid jobs are advanced and multi-disciplinary. They mix job titles and skills in a new way - for example, data scientists, security analysts, product managers, marketing managers, UI designers and design, user experience, data analysis, interpretation, business intelligence.[12]

Hybrid job workers have to learn these and other skills through years of working experience and self-development because only 16% of the high-powered hybrid jobs are entry-level. They are being paid 20-40% higher than their more-traditional counterparts and constitute 12% of all job openings and do not truly face the possibility of replacement by artificial intelligence in the coming years. Unlike specialists that will need to learn new working skills, and starting over in a new field will put them back decades. Frequently the analysis, soft skills, and new technology management lead to the creation of hybrid jobs.[12]

There is a potential problem for education and training institutions that must teach generalized specialists and generalists, and for mid-career workers who must know what skills to add to their portfolio — and when. There is a problem, though, that current curricula and programs de-linking many of these skills from each other. Besides, the rapid and dynamic change in the job market makes it hard for higher education to adjust to the market's needs.[12]