Generalist engineers - the 'secret weapon' behind successful companies

Generalist engineers - the 'secret weapon' behind successful companies

February 2024

By Adam Robinson, Head of Energy at 42T

In rapidly changing markets and technological breakthroughs, specialists are often the focus of attention, but it is generalist engineers that are frequently the key to successful organisations. Why is this, and how does this benefit companies wishing to innovate?

When it comes to technology development where various disciplines often intersect, the ability to understand and integrate multiple domains is invaluable. Generalist engineers excel at this. Their broad knowledge allows them to bridge gaps between specialties, adapt to new information quickly, and create groundbreaking solutions.

As we go deeper into this topic, here's a question to ponder: what connects the invention of the first bagless vacuum cleaner, the advent of the first computers, and the establishment of the first car assembly lines?  Read on to discover the answer...

Female generalist engineers surveys touch screen of technology options

Domain-specific expertise can hold you back

It can often be an asset to not know about a specific industry or technology. By approaching new problems that haven’t been seen before, generalists are not constrained by group-think, or what they assume is possible. They are also unbound by historical logic, internal politics or sunk costs. This opens opportunities that may otherwise have been hidden or dismissed.

A core skill of a generalist is to learn quickly, identify links and filter information into what is relevant to that specific problem. Another is to simply ask ‘why?'

Generalists ask the right people the right questions to get to the root of the problem by looking past the surface. When combined with the rationality of a highly trained scientist, this can unlock insights that have the power to revolutionise an organisation.

The power of effective collaboration

As highlighted in the book ‘Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World’ by David Epstein, generalists can connect dots where others might not see a link. This ability to see the bigger picture and understand how different pieces fit together leads to creative breakthroughs and innovative solutions.

Moreover, their diverse background allows them to communicate effectively with specialists from various fields, ensuring that everyone is on the same page. This collaborative approach not only speeds up the development process but also ensures that the final product is well-rounded and robust.

Generalist engineer surveys the figurative maze of project options

Their experience in many fields creates a network of resources and tools to solve complex problems. It allows them to find novel solutions around blockages, avoiding delays and costly overruns. The ability to navigate and direct is more important than knowing what the destination looks like.

The cornerstone of innovation: fresh thinking

The technological landscape is ever evolving. What is revolutionary today might become obsolete tomorrow. In such a dynamic environment, adaptability is key.

Generalists thrive in changing fields as their diverse exposure allows them to draw inspiration from various areas, ensuring they remain relevant and valuable, even as industries evolve.

Business schools have studied this effect in numerous studies, showing higher levels of competition winners and the creation of better ideas.

This adaptability also means that generalist engineers can quickly pivot when faced with challenges, finding alternative solutions and approaches. Their broad knowledge base allows them to draw parallels between seemingly unrelated fields, leading to unique and innovative solutions, and opportunities.

A diverse experience

Generalist engineers, having worked across various sectors, bring a wealth of experience. This diverse exposure ensures that they introduce best practices and the latest technologies to projects, elevating the quality of the end product.

Generalist engineers and professionals in a grid screen representation

Their vast experience also means that they can foresee potential challenges and pitfalls, ensuring that projects remain on track. Their insights, drawn from various industries, can provide companies with a unique perspective, leading to better and more innovative solutions.

Having been through the development process many times in different areas gives them the confidence to mitigate risks and meet all the targets set.

This ability to integrate diverse knowledge and foster collaboration makes them invaluable assets in the quest for innovation. It's no wonder that companies with a strong contingent of generalist engineers often find themselves at the forefront of technological advancements.

Efficient resource utilisation - more bang for your buck

Outsourcing, once a buzzword, has now become a staple in many sectors, from accounting to software development. Engineering is no exception.

As Leslie Martin proposes, by leveraging external generalist engineers, companies can access a wide range of expertise without the overheads of hiring full-time specialists. This not only saves costs but also allows for rapid deployment of skilled professionals to meet project demands.

Generalist engineers at work in an office in front of computer screen

Furthermore, by tapping into the expertise of generalists, companies can ensure that they are getting the best of both worlds. These engineers, with their broad skill sets, can handle a wide range of tasks - from design to implementation - ensuring that projects remain on track, and within budget.

One of the significant advantages of generalist engineers is the flexibility they offer. Companies can augment their teams temporarily, accessing a wide range of experiences without the hassles of recruitment and training.

This flexibility ensures that companies can scale up or down based on project requirements, ensuring efficiency and cost-effectiveness.

Streamlined communication: the one-point advantage

Engaging with a generalist engineering firm simplifies processes. Companies deal with a single point of contact, ensuring a cohesive development process. This streamlined approach reduces administrative burdens, ensuring that projects remain on track and within scope.

Moreover, this single point of contact ensures that there is no miscommunication or information loss. With a clear line of communication, companies can ensure that their requirements are clearly understood and met, leading to better end-products.

Generalist engineers at work in a lab

The key to progress and innovation

While specialists play a pivotal role, it's often the generalist engineers who emerge as linchpins. Their ability to integrate, adapt, and innovate makes them the 'secret weapon' of many successful companies.

The three inventions mentioned in the introduction were all market-changing ideas that came from combining previously unconnected fields. James Dyson used the cyclonic separation principle from sawmill equipment to revolutionise vacuum cleaners. Charles Babbage adapted punched cards used in the weaving industry for his first computers. Henry Ford took inspiration from meat production and sewing machines in order to industrialise car manufacture.

If you are pushing boundaries and creating technologies that haven’t existed before, specialists may not even exist yet. As technology continues to advance, the importance of generalist engineers will only increase, strengthening their role as the centralising force behind innovation and progress.

What we do

If you would like to find out how we could be your secret weapon by flexibly augmenting your team, supporting your innovation and providing a broader view, we will be happy to demonstrate how we can bring your business goals that much closer.

42T is a world-leading innovative engineering company that has solved some difficult challenges for companies all over the world. We accelerate technologies from an idea through to the lab and into the market by augmenting customer teams in the most effective way.

We don't just solve the unsolvable through good engineering practice, we challenge the norms and preconceptions to make sure we find the best answers to the right questions. 

More about us.  Read our latest news and case studies.

Adam Robinson | +44 (0)1480 302700 | LinkedIn: Adam Robinson

As a Senior Consultant at 42 Technology, Adam has a track record in leading the development of innovative technologies to accelerate commercialisation.

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