Scholars Florenta Teodoridis, Michael Bikard, and Keyvan Vakili have completed a new study regarding the role of generalists vs. specialists in the creative process. They posed the following hypothesis, as described in a recent Harvard Business Review post:
We theorized that the benefits of being a generalist are strongest in fields with a slower pace of change. In these fields (think oil and gas, mining), it might be harder for specialists to come up with new ideas and identify new opportunities, while generalists may be able to find inspiration from other areas. We also theorized that the situation flips for fields with a faster pace of change. In this case (think of quickly evolving fields such as quantum computers and gene editing), generalists may struggle to stay up to date, while specialists can more easily make sense of new technical developments and opportunities as they arise.
How did they study this question, and what did they find? The researchers examined the breakthroughs in mathematics by scholars in the Soviet Union from 1980-2000. They specifically wanted to look at the work being conducted during the Soviet era, when the pace of change was slow, to the period after the Soviet Union collapsed, when the pace of change increased substantially. Their detailed study confirmed their initial hypotheses. As they noted, "Generalists appear to be relatively successful as long as the pace of change is not too rapid, but their productivity decreases when the pace of change increases. At the same time, specialists appear to perform better when the pace of change accelerates."