Specialist or Generalist? Try Scaffolding.

The question of specialization versus generalization continues to be a point of anxiety for many creative business owners. Listening to clients and colleagues who are deeply ambivalent about specializing, I've come to learn that their anxiety centers largely on 3 concerns:

  • Fear of seeming small
  • Fear of being typecast
  • Fear of ending up in the wrong company

These are valid fears. But, in reality, is the specialist vs. generalist choice a false dichotomy? Are design businesses forced to choose between two such rigidly binary identities? In fact, many creative businesses I've looked at live along the spectrum of specialist and generalist, focusing at some point on a particular area of expertise then opening up to the broader possibilities then focusing again ad infinitum through the life of their business until, at some point when they look back they can say, yes I specialized but overall I captured so many areas of expertise that I became something more like a generalist.

The Five to Seven Year Itch

In her book, "Make it Bigger," Paula Scher captures the spirit of this beautifully saying, "To maintain any creative longevity a designer today must reinvent his or her work every five years. This does not mean simply changing style. It means reassessing one’s approach . . . and finding a way that is new yet still reflects on one’s core ethic and aesthetic . . . Reinvention is personal growth.”

Call it the business equivalent of the 7 Year Itch. In order to keep the marriage with your business alive and happy, you might have to scratch that itch once every five to seven years by finding something new, unique and exciting to get you re-engaged, re-invigorated, re-inspired and re-committed.

I want to tie that sentiment to a process that I think will be helpful to creative businesses continuing to struggle with the question of how to stay focused (specializing) while also continually growing (becoming a generalist).

Scaffold Your Expertise

In the early part of the 20th century a young Russian educator by the name of Lev Vygotsky developed a theory of education that came to be known as scaffolded learning or instructional scaffolding.

The theory holds that learning happens when a structure is in place to guide the learner from interest to expertise through a careful pedagogical process. The analogy to a building scaffold is that this methodological structure supports the learner until she is able to stand on her own merits.

To apply the analogy to your business, think about your creative business itself as a building edifice. It must have stability and integrity of its own simply to stand. But as the building ages and as new needs arise, the building may undergo construction to maintain its integrity and improve the way it functions. Perhaps the building must grow upward, adding more stories; or outward, taking up more territory; or it might need some cosmetic changes to the exterior or interior, making it more relevant to the times. No matter the nature of the changes, at no point do they undermine the underlying integrity of the existing structure.

In addition, the scaffold remains in place throughout the construction period until the edifice can once again stand on its own.

Throughout, the building remains open and fully-functioning. It may have some work-arounds, but it continues to serve its purpose. In fact, since growth can only happen when the structural integrity is secure, the very nature of the pursuit signals that you are increasing the value of the business.

Erect Your Business Scaffold

Here's the process of scaffolding as it applies to growing your business. A formalized process for developing a new area of expertise or specialization (and presumably you have done the due diligence before this stage to determine what that new area will be, why you are activating this change and what your measures of success will be). To erect your scaffold, start at the bottom level and work your way up.

1st level: Goal setting

As with any project, you begin by establishing a set of guiding principles. Here's a pretty clear place to start: "Our business is going to learn about new industry X (or method or medium) in order to grow new business and inspire our team with new ideas and practices."

2nd level: Information gathering

Activate your team into learning mode. Give them research tasks, resources, a central repository for their ideas and a forum for sharing them publicly and enthusiastically. This is team building with a mutually-beneficial goal for the entire business. The more everyone learns and brings their unique lens to the investigation the more rooted the learning becomes and the more you empower personal growth and cross-pollination of ideas.

As your team collects and discusses new information and ideas, consider different points of entry: watch experts in practice and try your hands at manipulating new ideas in practice; meet with elder-statesmen in the field to learn the history first-hand; visit archives to find hidden gems that don't exist online. Be creative in this stage. And, importantly, don't rush through the information-gathering stage. Give your team time to gather and reflect.

3rd level: Testing

Now you get to discover what you've learned, or rather, to discover whether you've learned what you've set out to learn. Now's the time to make something. Make lots of somethings. Rapid prototypes. Beta tests. Models and mock-ups. Make them well. Make them count. Use them to judge whether what you've learned is relevant and worthwhile. Be critical but kind, giving your team the encouragement and constructive input that enables positive change.

4th level: Feedback

First, think about who can give you the most useful feedback on what you've made. You want someone(s) with relevant insights and the ability to express a clear point of view. This might come in the form of your team, for starters. But also consider who in your target sector can play this role. An elder statesman in the field or a full advisory board (comprised of professionals who represent a variety of specialties in your target sector). Whoever it is, ask for their honest and critical feedback on what you've made.

5th level: Assessment

Based on the feedback you received, you determine if more learning is needed to achieve your desired level of expertise. You might also determine at this stage whether your team contains the proficiency it needs to establish the business as an expert. If not, you might alter your business model, decide on new hires, send team members for additional training, bring in new collaborators or assess the viability of your field of expertise.

6th level: Action

Finally, the scaffolding comes down and you move forward on your own merits. You start pitching your new area of expertise in conversations with the broader community, with case studies on your website, through white papers and articles published in the right publications, in presentations and, ultimately, in the new work you start to bring in with new clients.

Commit to a Culture of Learning

If your business is committed to growth it must necessarily be committed to learning. The process of learning for the business every 5-7 years will keep your team engaged, invigorated, inspired and committed. And the ripples will be felt by every member of your team to every new client you meet.

For additional inspiration, I encourage you to listen to the wonderful Jared Spool interview on Let's Make Mistakes and read this article on the "expert generalist" by Art Markman published on 99U.

Tell them Vygotsky sent you.