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Startup life is often typified by a fundamental lack of resources.
By: Adi Gaskell, Contributor
Entrepreneurs typically lack the money to do what they need to do, but perhaps more importantly, their skeleton crew often struggle to cover the full range of tasks required when growing a business. It typically results in members of the founding team performing a range of roles, and so it’s perhaps no surprise that research from the University of Notre Dame found that generalists are a valuable asset for any startup to have.
What is perhaps interesting, however, is that while this broad experience is invaluable from a practical perspective, it seems to be significantly undervalued by VC investors, who typically preferred to back startups where the founding team had deep, rather than broad, expertise. This appears to be a mistake, as the data suggests those startups founded by generalists tended to have a broader revenue stream, and operated higher up the value chain.
“If a founding team does have a wide range of prior experiences, they can improve their odds by launching their new business in faster growing or highly turbulent marketplaces where data shows that potential investors will strongly value their background,” the authors say.
There is also much to suggest that generalists are more innovative. Research suggests that the majority of innovations today build upon previous work, or in the R&D lingo, is recombinative. As such, people who have a broader array of interests are more likely to be able to spot things from one domain that could be applied in others. This is evident in entrepreneurship figures, as data suggests that migrants are disproportionately more likely to be entrepreneurs than native people, and a big reason for this is that they are able to apply the norms from their homeland to a fresh environment. Similar phenomena is evident in the world of open innovation, where challenges are often solved by people operating outside of their core specialism.
Generalists are also better equipped to the changes in the market which are increasingly rapid. In a world where we are likely to not only live longer, but work longer, London Business School’s Lynda Gratton predicts a multi-stage life is set to replace the traditional study-work-retire existence we’ve known for over a century. This will require people to adapt and change their skills throughout their life, and having a strong general skillset provides you with many more transferable attributes with which to pivot your career around.
Given these clear benefits, you might think that generalists would be in high demand, but just as with the VC example from earlier, the opposite is often the case. For instance, in Eastern Europe, it’s often said that if you have seven trades, the eighth one is poverty, whereas in South Korea, it’s said that a man with twelve talents has nothing to eat for dinner. It reinforces this notion commonly aired in the anglosphere, that a Jack of all trades, is a master of none.
Such sayings were often born out of the same industrial era that spawned Adam Smith’s famous paeon to specialisation in The Wealth Of Nations. It’s a belief that a T-shaped approach to knowledge was the best, because you needed deep expertise in a particular domain in order to thrive. It’s a philosophy that made tremendous sense when the pace of change was relatively slow, but that’s no longer the case.
In organizations, we prize characteristics such as versatility and resilience as they enable them to weather the winds of change more successfully. Cultivating a generalist skillset is a great way to do that, and indeed schools such as the London Interdisciplinary School are looking to cultivate just such a mindset.
Author Waqas Ahmed outlines a number of ways you can help cultivate such a mindset in his recent book Polymath: Unlocking the Power of Human Versatility.
Hopefully by now you are a little bit more appreciative of the benefits general knowledge can bring to your career and to your organizations. The stigma attached to the concept is slowly melting away, and a number of formal and informal methods are emerging to help you develop your ‘M-shaped’ knowledge. There’s no better time than the present to start unleashing your full mind and spirit, and hopefully the tips above will give you some pointers to get you started.
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