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Generalist Vs. Specialist Teams: How To Build A Highly Creative Startup

In the 1990s, neuroscientist Kevin Dunbar aimed to understand how scientific breakthroughs are achieved in real life. He performed a longitudinal study of several research laboratories and measured which laboratories managed to use unexpected findings (anomalies) to generate unique knowledge—a scientific breakthrough.

What he found was that the most creative laboratories were the ones that applied to the problem at hand a lot of analogies from varied scientific domains. The only laboratory in the experiment which didn’t produce any new findings was one in which everyone had very similar and highly specialized backgrounds—in this lab analogies were almost never used.

“When all the members of the laboratory have the same knowledge at their disposal, then when a problem arises, a group of similar-minded individuals will not provide more information to make analogies than a single individual” – Kevin Dunbar

Dr. Dunbar’s study suggests that scientific breakthroughs happen more often when scientists with diverse backgrounds exchange ideas informally. In other words, creative problem solving thrives in teams with diverse backgrounds.

In a way, this isn’t very surprising – thinking outside the box is easier when your whole team doesn’t come from the same box.

Naturally, this finding is extremely applicable to early-stage startups. In the idea generation and validation startup stages, running a startup is half business and half science. What matters most is finding product-market fit, and this can happen only by generating creative solutions to the problems you are facing and testing your hypotheses against the market.

In highly-predictable environments, specialization allows you to solve problems very efficiently. In unpredictable environments, however, efficiency isn’t as important as creativity. And the environment of innovative startups is anything but predictable.

Because of this, the ideal early-stage startup team should consist of people with diverse professional backgrounds. Ideally, this doesn’t mean just people coming from different disciplines – marketing, finance, sales, development, but also from different industries. This would allow you to use analogies from vastly different domains, which the study suggests is the key to creative problem-solving.

“You have people walking around with all the knowledge of humanity on their phone, but they have no idea how to integrate it.” – David Epstein

In this context, the main role of the founder and CEO would be to integrate the knowledge readily available in the team and to channel it towards generating creative solutions to the consumer problems the startup is addressing.

This also suggests that when you are choosing your early employees as a founder, you need to consider not only their skills but also their backgrounds. Relying just on your own professional network to find prospects might limit your options. Your network is likely biased towards your own industry. Relying on it would generate a team with similar backgrounds, which might hinder the creative capacity of your startup a great deal.

In summary, diversity is a catalyst for creativity. Choose people coming from different domains to make sure your early-stage startup team is capable of the high-level creative problem solving required to take an innovative project to success.

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