Feb 24, 2021

Generalist vs. Specialist: Which Is the Better Path for CPAs?

Reading for Lifelong Learning and Leadership: A PICPA Blog Series

Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World by David Epstein

James Caruso, CPABy James J. Caruso, CPA, CGMA

In Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, David Epstein argues that solving the most complex problems requires broad knowledge across domains. Specialization is not enough.

Perhaps the most familiar allegory of breadth versus depth is the ancient Greek parable of the fox and the hedgehog, popularized in an essay by Isaiah Berlin in the 1950s and more recently by political scientist and writer Philip Tetlock. Hedgehogs “know one big thing;” they are deep but narrow. Foxes “know many little things;” they represent breadth. Physicist and mathematician Freeman Dyson uses a similar metaphor of birds and frogs: birds fly high and see the entire landscape, while frogs “live in the mud below… (and) delight in the details of particular objects.” Is it better to be a fox or bird rather than a hedgehog or frog? In short, it depends.

Book Cover - Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized WorldSome problems are rules-based and involve instinctive pattern recognition. Chess is a classic example. In complex problems, by contrast, the “rules of the game” are unclear or incomplete, and, after taking action, feedback may be delayed or inaccurate. Epstein refers to such problems or environments as “kind” and “wicked,” respectively, using terms coined by psychologist Robin Hogarth.

Kind problems are well-defined, well-understood, and made for specialists. But when faced with the ambiguity and uncertainty of wicked problems, a broad mindset outperforms a narrow one.

In wicked environments, repetition does not equal learning. This calls to mind the proverbial distinction between 10 years of experience versus one year of experience repeated 10 times. In fact, experience can be detrimental by reinforcing the wrong lessons. As the saying goes, when you have a hammer, everything is a nail. Epstein uses the metaphor of “failing to drop our tools,” citing the research of organizational behavior expert Karl Weick, who found that elite wildland firefighters perished when they refused orders to drop their tools during an evacuation. NASA, in the space shuttle Challenger disaster, similarly failed to drop the tools embedded in its culture, discounting qualitative insight on a potential problem because it was not supported by quantitative technical evidence.

When trying to solve wicked problems, it can be difficult to “drop our tools” and expand our perspective. Our instinct – particularly as accountants – is to focus on details. This leads to biased judgments about how the problem fits into our experience, and we apply memorized routines. Epstein’s advice is to first determine the nature of the problem by using the power of analogy to think across domains and find other situations with structural similarities. Only then should a strategy be matched to the problem at hand. For example, insight about the potential pitfalls of rapid growth in a business can be gained from analyzing a military strategy for maintaining momentum after winning a battle without going beyond the objective and losing the war. Today’s complex problems require us to learn without direct experience, using abstract thinking and conceptual skills that can connect new ideas and work across contexts. According to Epstein, this ability to apply knowledge to a new situation is the “essence of creativity.”

Anything in a rules-based, “kind” domain can be done better by a machine. We see this in our profession with the advance of accounting software and robotics. But a computer cannot formulate strategy, which remains a strictly human endeavor. Epstein describes a study in which amateur chess players beat a chess supercomputer by directing normal computers on what to examine, and then synthesizing that information into an overall strategy. Epstein interprets this as evidence of humans doing what they do best without the need for years of specialized pattern recognition like chess grandmasters have. Our greatest strength as humans is to integrate broadly, which is the opposite of narrow specialization. The more “big picture” the problem, the more value humans can add. Rather than feeling threatened by automation, we ought to welcome the ability to focus on strategy, while leveraging technology to execute tactically.

This suggests that it is preferable to be a fox over a hedgehog, a bird rather than a frog. But ideally, we should strive for breadth and depth in at least one area. This will serve us well not only in problem-solving, but in our roles as business partners and translators between financial and nonfinancial domains. Corporate scientist Jayshree Seth calls herself a broad “T-shaped” person, in contrast to an “I-shaped” person that only goes deep in a narrow specialty. Seth views the trunk of her “T” as formed by reliance upon “I-shaped” experts. I prefer to visualize the “T” as one’s own combination of breadth and depth, with the trunk of the “T” formed by one’s own specialization.

So how do we become broader? Epstein tells many stories of people who found success following circuitous career paths. He recommends changing course when something is not a fit. Find the best match based on who you are now, instead of conforming to a predetermined, traditional path. Epstein does not say as much about how we can attain greater breadth in our current roles, but the answer is obvious: be intellectually curious and learn outside of your domain through reading, hobbies, travel, and taking on new professional and personal projects outside of your comfort zone. Be like the polymaths, the generalists who were some of history’s greatest thinkers and inventors.

More blogs in the Reading for Lifelong Learning and Leadership series:

James J. Caruso, CPA, CGMA, is CFO of J. Knipper and Company & KnippeRx in Somerset N.J. He can be reached at james.caruso@knipper.com.

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Statements of fact and opinion are the authors’ responsibility alone and do not imply an opinion on the part of PICPA officers or members. The information contained in herein does not constitute accounting, legal, or professional advice. For professional advice, please engage or consult a qualified professional.