Two weeks ago, I had the honor of speaking to a group at the National Hardware Show. The topic I discussed was centered around design and development firms, how to select one, and how to maximize the value of working with such a firm.
One of the subjects that came up was that there are many different types of firms. Some, for example, are very specialized into particular product categories or service areas, while others provide more general services across the broader product development process.
So, is it better to work with specialists or generalists?
There's really no solid answer to that question, and many programs can benefit from both specialists and generalists.
Specialist firms may go very deep into particular areas of knowledge (such as optics, wireless communication, or food handling), they may be very focused in certain product categories (farm equipment, electronics, or toys), or they may focus tightly in a particular part of the product development process (design, engineering, prototyping, or manufacturing).
A generalist firm, however, may offer services that include design, engineering, manufacturing, research, or any combination of these or other skill-sets. Additionally, generalist firms tend to work in many different industries, and may be working in toys, power tools, appliances, and medical devices (among others) concurrently.
Specialists make great partners when a solution set is fairly well bracketed. A new hearing protection product could greatly benefit by having audiology specialists involved in its development. But, the audiology experts may not have broad enough expertise to complete the holistic part design, specify materials and manufacturing processes, or design the product to resonate with the target consumer group.
Generalists, however, provide broader expertise in overall product development, and are generally going to be better partners for getting the new product all the way to the market. Also, since they work in a variety of different industries, they may provide broader, more out of the box thinking. But, they may lack depth of experience in very specific or very focused areas.
In my career, the programs that I've seen work the best involved both generalists and specialists. Generalist firms were engaged to run the project overall, but specialists were brought in to add much needed depth in critical areas.