Why Your Company’s Survival Depends On Your Becoming A Generalist

Humans are by nature generalists. We thrive in a wide variety of environmental conditions and make use of a wide variety of niches and resources. As long as we live in small groups and pursue opportunistic strategies for survival, we need to be generalists: everyone in the group must be able to handle multiple tasks. Once we aggregate into much larger groups, some individuals have the luxury of becoming specialists. However, with the advent of social media and advanced technology, not to mention the realities of market chaos, this evolutionary aspect of business life is reversing: many of these specialist positions are falling by the wayside, and increasingly business strategy and even specialists are heading towards multi-specialization. (Joe’s Shoe Repair and Fresh Croissants!)

Devolution This Isn’t

One could argue that family companies are the original generalists. While still focusing on a single operational core business, they often diversify their risk into other spaces such as financial investments, real estate and other capital investments. These businesses know that this generalist business strategy or multi-specialist approach is needed to compete outside of larger corporations.

Be the Maverick

What do payment solutions have to do with electric cars, space shuttles or drilling? In a word, nothing. But consider: if Elon Musk had been positioned solely as an expert around payment solutions, would he have ever sent a rocket into space? Probably not. And yes, a background in physics didn’t hurt, but the key here is that Musk thinks like a generalist. Not only does he see opportunities others miss, but his leadership and outside-the-box business strategy attract the right people, ensure that he can raise capital, spearhead marketing machines and gloss everything he touches with “cool.”

Looking Up

But when one’s entire focus has been to specialize, how to revert to the generalist business strategy? We can start by stopping: once we quit positioning ourselves as experts in a given area, it becomes easier to wear different hats (thanks Edward De Bono). By embracing parallel thinking, you are taking the first steps towards reinventing your company, expanding your client base, acquiring new market niches, and finding the connections between payment solutions, electric cars and space shuttles, for example. The easy way to do this is to metaphorically and literally lift one’s gaze. People forget to look up. Just by raising our business gaze we will be able to see so much more. Every day, consider one more investment opportunity, a different perspective, a new decision-making protocol or business move that, while initially may feel random, could make all the difference when it comes to survival.

Unchain Your Brain

So the big question is how do we build brands and business strategy around this “new” concept of a little this, a little that? What happened to the Single Minded Proposition? How can we position ourselves for operating across so much territory and with often limited resources? The answer is to tell yourself a new story, starting with “Why not….?” and fill in the blanks. Why not turn your customers into thousands of quality control experts? Why not create software to make that happen? Why not sell that software to others? There are plenty of tools out there that can help you explore this.

I Dunno . . . Sounds Risky

With many family companies, a big percentage of discussions and business strategy revolve around risk and exposure—and rightfully so when it comes to a financial perspective. However, when it comes to a branding space, this positioning strategy might just be a much safer route to go. Being positioned as “focused generalists” allows a brand to remain light and mobile, and not only be what our family and business needs, but also what the world demands of us right now. We are able to develop, expand, evolve, diversify, revolve and pivot—with much less effort when our brand and positioning allows for this.

Leap Laterally

Changing our ways of thinking and raising our gaze is always challenging. Changing from specialist to generalist might feel impossible at this stage in your life, however, these two are not mutually exclusive. One could be a specialist in one field but have generalist knowledge of many. It comes down to consciously integrating that generalist knowledge into a worldview—or in this case your positioning within the world at large. Over time you will develop more confidence in exploring and expanding into different areas, and in trusting your ability to judge the potential value of seeming “left lateral leaps” and in doing so find that you’ve actually been a generalist at heart all along.

This post originally appeared on Forbes.com

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