Specialization: For Insects or the Key to Prosperity?

Kristin Luck

ScaleHouse Specialization Blog Visual

Although the American science fiction writer, Robert Heinlein, is famous for the quote “specialization is for insects”, believing that humans should be skilled at MANY different pursuits (including butchering and programming a computer!), most economists disagree.

Scottish economist Adam Smith said that specialization is the royal road to prosperity, because if people specialize, they can really get good at something. His famous example was about pin-making, like straight pins that you put in a shirt. He said, “Look, 10 people in a factory making pins — not a very exciting job — but if they can each specialize on 10 different aspects of how you make a pin, a group of 10 workers in a factory in one day could make 48,000 pins. That means 4,800 pins per worker, while each of these individual workers, if they had to make these pins on their own, they’d be lucky to make maybe 20.”


Too often we see companies trying to be all things to all people…and failing to be relevant to prospective customers as a result


Another economist, Victor Matheson has a more relatable example. “Little House on the Prairie” and Pa Ingalls. To quote Matheson, “Everyone was in love with Pa Ingalls because you’re like, “Oh, this guy can do everything — is there anything that Pa can’t do?” And it turns out Pa could do a lot of things, but he couldn’t do anything well. And his family was in poverty essentially their whole life, living at the edge of existence. We talk about the term, “this guy’s a jack of all trades.” But the reality is, being a jack of all trades kind of means you’re a jackass of all trades.

At ScaleHouse we preach the importance of differentiation and specialization in both scaling and defending enterprise value. Too often we see companies trying to be all things to all people…and failing to be relevant to prospective customers as a result.

To use an example from American football (in honor of the recent Superbowl), the “long snapper” is a perfect example of the power of specialization. Unlike Pa Ingalls, the long snapper does just one thing. He doesn’t throw the ball. He doesn’t run the ball. He doesn’t kick the ball. He doesn’t play offense or defense. He doesn’t even snap the ball on regular offensive plays. All he does is snap the ball on punts, field goals, and extra points. And here’s the really interesting part…an N.F.L. team is only allowed to have 48 players on its game-day roster. And yet every N.F.L. team uses one of those valuable roster spots for a long snapper. Is that really necessary? Is the task so difficult, the position so specialized, that it’s worth a roster spot for just that handful of plays?

It sure is. Listen in to this episode of the Freakonomics podcast for why specialization is so important to the success of a team (and not just a football team!). Maybe it will help you think about specialization in your own business. What or who is your “long snapper”?