Generalists vs. Specialists (And the Specialist’s Dilemma)

Animal species reside on a scale with “generalist” on one end and “specialist” on the other. Specialists can live only in a narrow range of conditions, while generalists are able to survive a wide variety of conditions and changes in the environment. The Specialist’s Dilemma is when the stronger your competitive position, the more vulnerable you are to eventually being disrupted and replaced.

In December of last year, I gave a presentation to a group of investors on the mental models of robustness and generalist/specialist species. Below are some of my findings, along with how these models can be applied to business and investing.

Animal species reside on a scale with “generalist” on one end and “specialist” on the other. Specialists can live only in a narrow range of conditions: diet, climate, camouflage, etc. Generalists are able to survive a wide variety of conditions and changes in the environment: food, climate, predators, etc.

Specialists thrive when conditions are just right. They fulfill a niche and are very effective at competing with other organisms. They have good mechanisms for coping with “known” risks. But when the specific conditions change, they are much more likely to go extinct. Generalists respond much better to changes/uncertainty. These species usually survive for very long periods because they deal with unanticipated risks better. They have very coarse behavior: eat any food available, survive in many climates, use a simple mechanism to defend a wide range of predators, etc. But unlike specialists they don’t maximize their current environment, because they don’t fill a niche where they could be more successful. It’s tough being a generalist—there’s more competition.

An environment with more competition breeds more specialists. Rainforests have huge diversity and competition, and therefore many specialist species.

Specialist examples: Orchid mantis (colorful mantis with appendages like leaves, thrives only on orchids and in tropics), sword-billed hummingbird (beak longer than body, co-evolved with flowers having very long corollas and difficult getting food elsewhere), koala (lives almost entirely on eucalyptus filling a niche that is toxic to most animals).

Generalist examples: Cockroach (survives in most climates, only needs water/moisture and a food source, only defense is responding to puffs of air), raccoon (wide diet, omnivore, lives in any area with trees, brush, or structures), rat (found everywhere in the world but the Artic, not picky eaters), horseshoe crab (wide diet on floor of sea bed, tolerates wide range of water temperature, can survive in low oxygen waters and out of water for extended periods; species over 360MYO).

Specialists & Generalists in Business

This model can be applied to many different areas.

Investors themselves can be put on the specialist/generalist scale. The most specialized investors focus only on narrow segments of the market or certain types of securities. They can be very successful during certain time periods but in the long run are usually disrupted by a changing investment landscape or black-swan-like event. The most generalized investors use very coarse, unchanging rules and are truly “go anywhere”, willing to buy or sell any type of security around the world. They may underperform or lag behind their specialized brethren in the short term but will likely do well in the long run when averaged out over many different environments. Most investors (including Warren Buffett) lie somewhere in between these two extremes. Specialists include investors in certain industries like Sam Zell (real estate) and Ron Burkle (retail), or in certain situations like Jim Chanos (shorting) and David Tepper (distressed). True generalists are more rare, but include great investors like Ben Graham and Seth Klarman.

A more interesting application is to the competitive business world. Like in the animal kingdom, generalists are rare and are usually much bigger than the specialists. They include big multinationals like Johnson & Johnson, Wal-Mart, Coca-Cola, and Proctor & Gamble. Also included are conglomerates that may hold many diversified specialists like General Electric or Berkshire Hathaway. Specialists are businesses that focus on a local niche whether in geography or product space. Because many specialists can dominate their niche, they’re usually protected by moats and thus have high returns.

This is what I call the Specialist’s Dilemma. The stronger your competitive position, the more vulnerable you are to eventually being disrupted and replaced.

Let me explain further. Out of the universe of companies that have strong competitive moats, many of them have advantages originating from the niches they occupy. (Which can lead to barriers like economies of scale, brand attachment driven by habit, and being ahead on the learning curve.) These advantages are durable only as long as the niche itself remains viable. In other words, the more specialized a company’s dominance is, the stronger its advantages are — but the higher the odds of the niche itself eventually disappearing. Not disappearing due to competitors within the industry, but due to the niche being completely destroyed and replaced by something else. The timing of when this happens partially depends on the “clockspeed” of innovation within the industry (more on that in my last post).

Just something to think about if you’re a long term investor or business manager.

10 thoughts on “Generalists vs. Specialists (And the Specialist’s Dilemma)”

  1. You have identified the biggest risk to being a specialist but in my book, “the St. Bernard Principle. Why Specialists are the Alpha Dogs in Business” you discover that if you worry about what might happen in the future you will likely lag behind in the present.

    Like

  2. So, scarcity -> competition -> specialization -> a point where expertise apparently consumes itself? Generalists keep the entire system stable, while specialists create the system-wide chaos which generates change. Generalists as “maintainers”, specialists as “creators”.

    Just some of my thoughts reading your enlightening post.

    Like

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