There are an increasing number of people who dislike the idea of job titles or job descriptions. I count myself among their number. There is something about a job description that establishes expectations against which we will be assessed. It is in the nature of the human condition to resist being measured, weighed and found wanting. But there is more to it than that: job titles and descriptions serve as a form of constraint too, reinforcing organisational hierarchies. If I am going to be differentiated from my teammates, let it not be by a label but rather by my alternative experiences and learning. And let me bridge those differences through sharing, mentoring and a dedication to the development of others.
If I am to take on a leadership role let it not be determined by the rank and status attached to a job title. Instead let it be earned through mutual respect and trust. If the relationship between leader and follower is to be genuine, you cannot self-appoint nor can you be imposed from above. You earn your position through the response and actions of others who choose to follow you. You embark upon a journey together, accepting that there will be failures along the way, but united in purpose, openminded and willing to learn from one another.
Still, there is more in my resistance to job titles and descriptions. This is probably even more fundamental. While some have their very presence and role in the workplace defined by titles and job descriptions (and are highly resistant to doing anything that does not conform to the expectations established by them), I see them as shackles. For me, they are time-bound, useful only to the recruitment process and then quickly to be discarded. Why? Because I want to exercise the right to be a multi-disciplinarian, a polymath. The job description maps to one set of deep skills that I can offer, but it does not reflect my full range, either current or emergent.
In a July 2012 blog post, Harold Jarche observed that generalists with only broad skills were no longer required in an interconnected work environment. He argued instead for people who ‘have a T-shaped set of skills’, comprised of broad knowledge and skills in a specialist discipline and deep skills in a particular business area. The need for depth is also reflected in the work of Tom Malone and his colleagues on hyperspecialisation, which recognises the ‘productivity gains of dividing work into ever smaller tasks performed by ever more specialized workers’.
[Photo: Hedy Lamarr, polymath extraordinaire, actress and inventor]
My problem is I want to maintain the breadth of a generalist and acquire the depth of a specialist not in just one but a number of different areas. It’s the result of curiosity and knowledge acquisition. I get an initial taste and I want to learn more, putting that learning into practice. I’ve also been scarred by my experiences as a specialist in the past and the tendency of others, particularly those at the top of the organisational hierarchy, to label and pigeonhole. Colleagues see you as an expert on topic x, and every time you try and spread your wings, demonstrating interest, competence and capability in another area, you get put back in your box.
So how to reconcile the polymathic tendency with the need for deep skills in one or more business areas? In a 2012 HBR post defending polymaths, Kyle Wiens quotes Maya Angelou who observes, ‘I think you can be a jack-of-all-trades and a mistress-of-all-trades. If you study it, and you put reasonable intelligence and reasonable energy, reasonable electricity to it, you can do that.’ Wiens himself adds, ‘The problem with deep specialization is that specialists tend to get stuck in their own points of view. They’ve been taught to focus so narrowly that they can’t look at a problem from different angles. And in the modern workscape we desperately need people with the ability to see big picture solutions. That’s where being a polymath has certain advantages.’
The polymath collects knowledge and ideas from multiple disciplines. To paraphrase T.S. Eliot, they shore these fragments against their ruins. Innovation, creativity and productive thought can result from the fragments being mixed together and synthesised, either deliberately or by chance. It could be the result of someone applying a humanities lens in an engineering context, borrowing from business in sport, using music in mathematics, mixing two different regional cuisines together, or some other eclectic fusion. Often this is a product of combinatory play and experimentation. Risk is tolerated and failure is always a likely outcome.
The curiosity and desire to learn from other practices is not uncommon in healthcare. Atul Gawande, for example, in his book The Checklist Manifesto, documents how as a surgeon he has drawn from lessons learned in the aviation, construction and finance industries. Here is an individual who seems to regularly revisit the Palchinsky Principles, as articulated by Tim Harford in Adapt: ‘first, seek out new ideas and try new things; second, when trying something new, do it on a scale where failure is survivable; third, seek out feedback and learn from your mistakes as you go along’.
Gawande, in attempting to change the working practices of others and persuade them of the validity of doing things differently, also seeks to overcome an issue identified by the late Chris Argyris: ‘Professionals embody the learning dilemma: they are enthusiastic about continuous improvement – and often the biggest obstacle to its success.’ Deep knowledge can result in entrenched practices and misguided overconfidence. As a consequence those with deep knowledge of a narrow subject often resist the polymathic tendency to broaden horizons, to introduce ideas gathered and synthesised from elsewhere, reapplying them in a different context.
Even as our jobs push us towards hyperspecialisation, we need to satisfy our natural curiosity and the requirement for a breadth of skills at the top of Jarche’s T-model. This can be supported and enabled by personal knowledge management (PKM) practices and personal learning networks (PLN). As lifelong learners, do not let your title or job description inhibit your acquisition and application of new knowledge and skills.
Long live the polymath.
My thanks to Kenneth Mikkelsen. An inspirational conversation with him was the catalyst for this post.