Effectiveness Over Universal Expert


You can’t be an expert in all things.

However, you can improve your overall effectiveness by rounding out your skills.

While it’s good to specialize, knowing the basics in some key areas will help you put your knowledge to work.

I’ve found that while it’s important to specialize in some areas, that I get more results by adding other areas to my belt.  For example, focusing on business helps me invest my time better.  Learning marketing fundamentals helps me get more impact from the work I do.

Working on interpersonal skills and communication skills helps me build more effective teams and produce results more effectively.  Working on my writing or presentation skills helps me sell ideas and more importantly scale them.

In the book, The Essential Drucker, Peter Drucker writes about effectiveness over the universal expert.

Key Take Aways

Here are my key take aways:

  • Effectiveness over universal experts.  You can’t be an expert in all things.  Your can round out your knowledge and get the basics, while still specializing in a few areas.
  • Learn divergent skills.   Balance going deep with having a working knowledge across a range of divergent areas.  For example, some key areas include accounting, psychology, marketing, … etc.  Knowing a range of areas will help you put specialized knowledge to more effective use.  The sum is more than the parts.  Divergent skills can also help you bridge with other disciplines and cross-pollinate bodies of knowledge.
  • Know what the areas are about.  You don’t have to master the fundamentals, but you should at least know what the area is about and how you can leverage it.
  • When you can’t increase the supply, increase the yield.   When you can’t grow universal experts and you can’t increase the supply of specialized knowledge, you can focus on increasing the results.  Effectiveness is the tool for improving results.

While I do focus on knowing some areas deeply and specializing in some good bets, it’s my more general knowledge that helps me adapt to the changing landscape and shift to new areas as needed.  It’s also my more general knowledge that helps me bridge with other disciplines and get more impact from where I do specialize.

Advanced Knowledge in 62 Areas Isn’t Feasible

It’s not feasible to expect people to be experts in too many areas.  If a discipline requires people to be experts in 62 areas, that’s not going to scale and that’s not a setup for success.  Drucker writes:

“When “operations research” first came in, several of the brilliant young practitioners published their prescription for the operations researcher of tomorrow.  They always came out asking for a polymath knowing everything and capable of doing superior and original work in every area of human knowledge.  According to one of these studies, operations researchers need to have advanced knowledge in sixty-two or so major scientific and humanistic disciplines.  If such a person could be found, he would, I am afraid, be totally wasted on studies of inventory levels or on the programming of production schedules.”

High Knowledge in a Host of Divergent Skills

We need experts in areas.  We also need a bridge across disciplines.  We also need to get more from the expertise we’ve got.  Having some basic knowledge in a variety of key areas is the answer.  Drucker writes:

“Much less ambitious programs for manager development call for high knowledge in such a host of divergent skills as accounting and personnel, marketing, pricing, and economic analysis, the behavioral sciences such as psychology, and the natural sciences from physics to biology and geology.  And we surely need people who understand the dynamics of modern technology, the complexity of the modern world economy, and the labyrinth of modern government.  Every one of these is a big area, is indeed too big even for those who work on nothing else.  The scholars tend to specialize in fairly small segments of each of these fields and do not pretend to have more than a journeyman’s knowledge of the field itself.”

At Least Know What the Areas Are About

You don’t need to be an expert in all the fundamentals, but you should have a working knowledge.  A working knowledge will improve your overall effectiveness.  Minimally, know what the other areas are about.  Drucker writes:

“I am not saying that one need not try to understand the fundamentals of every one of these areas.  One of the weaknesses of young, highly educated people today – whether in business, medicine, or government – is that they are satisfied to be versed in one narrow specialty and affect a contempt for the other areas.  One need not know in detail what to do with “human relations” as an accountant, or how to promote a new branded product if an engineer.  But one has a responsibility to know at least what these areas are about, why they are around, and what they are trying to do.  One need not know psychiatry to be a good urologist.  But one had better know what psychiatry is all about.  One need not be an international lawyer to do a good job in the Department of Agriculture.  But one had better know enough about international politics not to do international damage through a parochial farm policy.”

Effectiveness is the Tool to Yield More Results

Effectiveness is the answer.  Rather than make everybody a universal experts, focus on improving effectiveness.  If people specialize in an area, but learn the fundamentals in key areas, such as marketing, psychology, communication, … etc., they improve overall effectiveness.  Drucker writes:

“This, however, is something very different from the universal expert, who is unlikely to occur as is the universal genius.  Instead, we will have to learn how to make better use of people who are good in any one of these areas.  But this means increasing effectiveness.  If one cannot increase the supply of a resource, one must increase its yield.   And effectiveness is the one tool to make the resources of ability and knowledge yield more and better results.”

You Might Also Like

Skills for the Read Ahead

Can Effectiveness Be Learned?

Productivity Objectives

Photo by jaycross


  1. Mr. Drucker ;), thank you for this one – “Learn divergent skills”. For me it seems as a surefire [touch wood] recipe to survive in today’s recession times.

  2. Another post that I wholeheartedly agree with. No matter how specialized your work is, you can always expand your knowledge and your services by learning new skills and information. Great tips! Stumbled!

  3. I just figure if I can play my 3 songs at the open mike next week and not suck I’m on my way. Part of my 3-month plan.

  4. Hi J.D.
    I always all you need is to be expert in one thing, be so great at that and you will be known for that one thing. Many very successful people are known by their one thing.
    Thank you,
    Giovanna Garcia
    Imperfect Action is better than No Action

  5. I really wish that I could be an expert in web design, but I know my weaknesses. I don’t have the mathematical brain to code in html or CSS. I know it wouldn’t be too hard and I do know the basics, but that’s enough.

    I try to focus on writing, speaking and creativity. That’s enough for me.

  6. @ Alik

    It’s a good recipe. With a good set of divergent skills, it’s easier to hop disciplines or domains if you need to.

    @ Melissa

    Thank you! I’m a fan of building breadth to make more use of depth. From another angle, I think we can’t predict what we might need to know down the line. We create more opportunities for ourselves through continous learning and spreading our wings.

    @ Jannie

    Performing is a great way of rounding out your skills.

    @ Giovanna

    I think that’s the secret in Good to Great. I’ve also seen that theme in Overachievement and The Dip. It’s about giving your best where you’ve got your best to give and carving your niche in the world.

    @ Karl

    You’ve rounded out your skills well. The fact that you have some Web basics helps you get online and share your experience more broadly. I know a lot of people where a lack of basic Web skills holds them back. Writing and speaking are a great way to amplify your results.

  7. Nice article and always great to see content from Drucker, you can’t go wrong with that in my opinion. Wise words here and one I think shows its advantages often with bloggers and people writing about various topics. Same applies in work and relationships. Many effective skills/relationships/whatever is always going to take you further than trying to perfect just one.

  8. @ Mike

    Thanks for stopping by. I agree — Drucker’s the man and you’re right, having a spectrum of skills and relationships takes us further than perfecting just one.

  9. […] business pundit Peter Drucker wrote (h/t to J. D. Meier): When “operations research” first came in, several of the brilliant young practitioners […]

Comments are closed.