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The Specialist; or, Dr Snip

Don’t become a wandering generality. Be a meaningful specific.

Zig Ziglar

Returns to specialisation

  • Specialists get more practice – they get better at what they do more quickly, develop “knack” and fingerspitzengefühl and are less likely to get rusty.
  • They streamline processes specific to their work and standardise inputs, which gives them greater control over outputs.
  • It makes more sense for specialists to invest in (or invent) specialist tools, improving efficiency and outcomes.
  • Because of the greater volume of specialised work that they do, specialists see more edge cases – they recognise them earlier, and deal with them better.
  • Specialised teams develop their own vocabulary to describe their work – they communicate fine-grained information rapidly and precisely.
  • Specialists seek out and learn from other specialists.
  • They can do the job more cost-effectively…
  • … but can charge more, because specialisation is a great marketing tool. Specialists have a clear offer, and are equally clear about what they don’t do. “We are the best at X. If you want Y, go down the road.”…
  • … which allows them to stay focused on what they do best, invest more on their tools and inputs, pay to outsource non-essentials, and keep on getting better.

Dangers of specialisation

  • Specialists risk getting blasé about their work. They think they’ve seen it all and see old patterns even when faced with new problems.
  • They focus too much on the technical problems they solve, and not enough on the people they serve or the wider systems they are part of.
  • They have fewer opportunities to learn from other fields. Old specialists are likely to lose out to new specialists bringing in new ideas, combinations and cross-pollinations.
  • Specialists sometimes take the low-hanging fruit (and high-margin jobs) from a larger system, threatening the viability of the whole.

See also:

Dr Snip
Technology (22): Francis Bacon on Combinatorial Innovation, the Big Three Technologies of the Renaissance, and Pure Science
Matt Ridley: 15 principles of innovation from “How Innovation Works”
Efosa Ojomo on market-creating innovation
Marks and Spencer as disruptive innovators
Marc Andreesen on networks of innovation
… and “Scenius”
César Hidalgo on the importance of trust in networks of innovation
Astro Teller on planning, experimentation and innovation
Resource: Clayton Christensen on disruptive innovation
Zen Hae on cross-pollination, imitation and innovation
The innovation in your head…
W. Brian Arthur on combinatorial innovation
Seeds (2): bikes, planes and automobiles
Hybrids (2): combinations and connections


I'd love to hear your thoughts and recommended resources...