Creativity is a crucial ingredient of firms’ success. By promoting the creativity of their employees, firms can imagine new processes, products, and services that help them thrive in a changing world. Meanwhile, firms that miss this crucial ingredient stand clay-footed in their competition against innovative rivals. When prosperity depends on constant re-invention, how can firms and their employees boost their creativity? Unfortunately, research does not provide a simple answer to that fundamental question. In fact, researchers have made two diametrically opposite arguments.
A large body of literature argues that the key to creative breakthroughs lies between specialty domains. It is by brokering ideas from one field to another, argue those studies, that the best ideas emerge. After all, every innovation somehow recombines elements that were previously in existence. The brilliance of geniuses stems from their ability to connect dots where others are incapable to see a link. Based on this line of thought, firms should probably encourage their employees to explore new fields unrelated to their previous experience. Presumably, they should also seek to hire generalists, individuals who have accumulated a variety of different experience and might therefore be able to bring in unique perspectives.
Other studies, however, disagree. Rather than highlighting the benefit of straddling domains, those studies highlight its cost. Jacks of all trade are master of none and specialists are likely to outperform generalists because they have a deeper understanding of their subject matter. This allows them to spot emerging opportunities more readily and to seize those opportunities more competently. Those studies suggest that firms should encourage their employees to become true specialists in whatever they do. Firms might also seek to hire employees who have very deep expertise.
How can one possibly reconcile those two streams of research? Since both streams have marshaled considerable amount of evidence to support their claims, we reasoned that both lines of work must be right. There must be circumstances under which generalists shine, and others under which specialists are best. We theorized and found evidence that the benefits of straddling domains are likely strongest in fields that do not evolve fast. Since little changes in those fields, specialists are likely to struggle to identify yet-untried ideas while generalists will be able to find inspiration from other areas. However, the situation is likely to reverse when the pace of change increases. In those situations, generalists are likely to struggle to stay up to date while specialists can more easily make sense of the latest developments and of the opportunities that they open.