Generalists Prove Valuable for Innovation

An article in Harvard Business Review has found that hiring a “jack of all trades” is becoming increasingly important for innovation. Companies gain a competitive advantage when their researchers have a diverse range of skills and interests because innovation is derived from synthesising a variety of knowledge.

Despite specialists being favoured for R&D, it has been shown that this alone generates poorer output than broad exploration. Generalists are more likely to make connections and discover valuable opportunities across multiple fields. Specialists on the other hand, excel at exploiting the ideas that result from this research.

A study by Frank Nagle found that research by generalists was 3.8 times more likely to be highly cited. This may be due to greater collaboration and more diverse input, allowing for the combination of information from multiple disciplines.

Hiring managers therefore need to seriously consider the balance between specialists and generalists in their R&D teams. Despite the importance of generalists, there is an undersupply due to incentives like grants and promotions tending to favour those who specialise. Businesses should consider incentives for their best generalists to encourage a more balanced workforce.

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