Specialist or Generalist?

Posted on August 27, 2010

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Entire business models center around this very question:  specialist or generalist? Professional service providers live and die by this position, and yet choosing one inevitably leads to ‘the grass is always greener’ scenario.

I have been on a team that was turned down for a cancer center project not because we did not have cancer center experience; we had plenty of successful large and small projects in our resume.  We were passed over because we did not have any ‘middle range’ cancer center projects that were within 20,000 s.f. of the intended project. If you can execute projects at the extremes, large and small, and the technology is the same in each, it stands to reason a medium-sized project of the same is a virtual slam dunk. I call that an owner seeking hyper-specialization with an almost irrational expectation.

I have been on those same teams rejected for work because we were pigeon-holed as “cancer center” specialists—too specialized to do anything else. Of course, specialized and generalized experience has also landed me work, too. Luckily, as they say, the sword cuts both ways.

However distorted, perception is reality and many times an architect or builder must shape his own image in the client’s eye, long before a project comes up. It is a fine line to want to have the depth of experience to carry some industry weight, but a wide background to prove adaptability, never knowing which side to emphasize—and I am speaking mainly about the healthcare sector.

My ‘purist’ architect colleagues would argue, as I agree, all registered architects are trained and licensed as “architect”, no ‘declared major’ like in college, with the technical competence and design training to ply to any project. An architect should be afforded the freedom to design a house for himself, then turn around and do a museum, a corporate headquarters, a warehouse, medical office building and YMCA. Variety is the spice of life, you know? 

But the licensed professional receives mixed signals from potential clients. I read about niche practices as the death of architects, especially in a slow economy; at the same time, I hear specialization is what gets you invited to the table by a demanding client. Likewise, generalists fight to stay fresh with diverse work, especially in smaller communities and when the economy is slow, but fight the stigma of being relegated to generic ‘small time’ work while significant project work is entrusted to outfits with deeper project resumes.

I suppose experience, like statistics, has some malleability to it, otherwise it would be universally understood by all the same way each time. But projects are not so black and white. Each project contributes to building professional experience by client, geography, code / regulation governance, budget, square footage, use—-not to mention the building components like structural system, mechanical system and material palette. 

At some level, the way past project experience is analyzed can be virtually meaningless just as experience in 20,000 s.f. buildings does not mean terribly much when not in the context of more important aspects like use or cost-per-square-foot. Clients read into a resume what they want to because no matter how you rationalize it, the client is primarily seeking confidence in his chosen team, and a way to sleep well at night.

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Posted in: Design Zeitgeist