In Awe of Generalising Specialists

September 4th, 2017 Published by Geoff Watts

In Awe of Generalising Specialists

One of the things I absolutely love to do is listen to music – with a strong preference for live music. I sometimes like to sing along too. I’m not too fussed on what artist or genre; I care more for the authenticity (no lip-syncing) and the passion. One of my guilty pleasures with regards to music is the duelling piano bar. Some of you will be familiar with the duelling piano bar – two pianos on a stage taking requests (for tips) from the audience for what song to play (and sing).

The pianists (in theory) compete to take the more difficult songs for the bigger tips but it is far from competitive and I’ve never had anything but a great night when visiting one of these. Why am I writing about this though?

Well, while I was on holiday over the summer I visited a couple of piano bars and at one point a blog post struck me. Bear with me…

The first thing that always strikes me is how many tunes and lyrics these people know. Of course there will always be certain songs that get requested every night (Piano Man, Sweet Caroline etc) but they have to be ready for anything. What amazes me is that they rarely turn down a song that they don’t know. For example, my wife (a huge Take That fan) asked for a Take That song…in Nashville, Tennessee! The pianist only knew Angels by Robbie Williams (which for any true Take That fan is obviously not good enough!) but went off to the dressing room to quickly learn it and came out 15 minutes later and played (and sang) it…incredible!

The second thing that always amazes me – and is the real reason for this blog post – is how multi-disciplinary the musicians are. Not only do they play the piano and sing but they will often get on the drums to back their colleague, or the trumpet, or guitar, or – to the crowd’s huge entertainment – the fiddle.


– especially when that involves The Devil Went Down To Georgia!


I have written a lot about the great teams I have seen and how the best teams tend to be made up of generalising specialists. People who have a specialism but branch out in to other areas to support the team where and when they are needed. Generalising specialists are also often referred to as T-Shaped people. The name (or the shape) isn’t what’s important but rather the willingness to put yourself in a position to offer more of what the team needs.

One concern people have with the idea of generalising specialists is that developing another skill is going to take your attention away from your primary skill. While one will no question have less time practising the piano if one is spending some time practicing the fiddle, these musicians become more accomplished all-round and have a much greater awareness of music and entertainment as a whole. Not only this, but the crowd is more likely to get what they want rather than be limited to the specialisms of the musicians present.

And when we take things back to the principles of the agile manifesto, “our highest priority is to satisfy the customer through early and continuous delivery of valuable software”. Teams with more generalising specialists are often much more capable of satisfying the customer than a team of specialists. And when I speak to these musicians, they tell me it is much more enjoyable for them to be able to pick up different instruments rather than be stuck with just one. I get similar messages from Scrum team members who like to be able to dip into other areas now and again.

How have you seen team members broaden their skillset and become generalising specialists? Have you seen it be of benefit? Have you seen having generalising specialists to be detrimental to the individual or the team or the organisation?

I feel I have to end the post with the original and the best. I was lucky enough to see Charlie Daniels and The Charlie Daniels Band play The Devil Went Down to Georgia live at The Grand Ole Opry and, at nearly 81 years old, that was another awe-inspiring musical moment!

September 4th, 2017 Published by

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