Innovation teams need generalists


Startups need execution-oriented, “whatever it takes” generalists.

After my talk at the AgileUX conference a few months ago, a soon-to-be entrepreneur came up to me explaining their intent to hire the best UX, best visual designer, best copywriter, best SEO person, best node.js person, etc etc and put it all together to make magic. Because it’s all about team right?

I think that’s a disaster of an approach.

A startup, whether entrepreneurial or intrapreneurial, is a hunt for product-market fit and a scalable business model. You need that hunt to be as fast and nimble as possible.

You can’t predict exactly how you are going to evolve, or what the most important thing to work on or the biggest bottleneck to overcome will be even a month from today. You need people who are flexible, who can get stuff done no matter the need, and who can do all this without losing sight of the big picture goals.

Adam Wiggins, co-founder of Heroku, hit on this in his piece “How To Scale a Development Team“, when discussing that 2-4 person stage, and even the 5 to 9 person stage:

“Everyone has to be a generalist and able to work on any kind of problem – specialists will be (at best) somewhat bored and (at worst) highly distracting because they want to steer product development into whatever realm they specialize in.”

PLEASE NOTE: I am not advocating for mediocrity. To be effective, you need people who are very talented in a few areas, but that is different from being a specialist who is the *best* at a particular thing.

You don’t actually need to have the *best* system performance, or mellifluous copy, or visual design to get to product-market fit. Your real early adopters (i.e. those who stick around) don’t need those things if you are solving a real need in a great way. Those things become important once you are expanding to mainstream adopters, but at the beginning you need vision + talent + speed + adaptability.

Team size also plays a factor here. On an innovation team, too many people is as dangerous as too few. Your communication overhead explodes and decision-making ability suffers.

Same with domain knowledge: too much can be as dangerous as too little. People who consider themselves experts tend to view their world view as fact, not hypotheses. The reality is if they are innovating, they are inherently making guesses. As a startup, it’s already hard enough to see the road ahead. You don’t need extra blinders.

Of course there are exceptions. There always are. If you are trying to solve a particularly esoteric technical problem, you probably want a specialist. However, that’s still different from building a team of specialists. That will come… if you are successful.


p.s. if this is all too vague, I’ll get more specific. What are some of the things a startup (or intrapreneurial project) product person will be called upon to do?

Explain a strategic vision yet thrive in the weeds, run customer development interviews and usability testing, create effective wireframes, write user stories, prioritize a backlog, create visual assets, bang together a clickable prototype, write compelling application and marketing copy, execute marketing experiments, dive into analytics, create and implement front-end designs, lend a hand with some basic back-end code too when needed (you know how all those important little things get bottlenecked while the dev team focuses on the big things?), and even close your first paying customers.

To some people that list might look insane, but that list is all stuff that I have needed to do in early-stage startups (and now my Proof innovation projects), and when I hadn’t yet been able to do it well, it penalized our pace and performance. That’s one reason why I’m taking this month away from client work and diving into the deep end with ruby on rails, because I have found that the more I can do, when it really needs being done, the faster and better everything goes.


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