Master of None

bjorn-karlsson

Today I want to celebrate the Jacks and Jills of all trades; the generalists, the multi-talented1. The hybrids, if you will. There used to be a time when a broad set of skills was an absolute necessity to survive, to live well, and to prosper. It wasn’t just about practical things such as sewing, hunting, building, foraging, or making a fire. It was also about skills in science (astronavigation for example), communication, negotiation (bartering doesn’t sound nearly as nice), group dynamics, leadership, and many other topics that are very relevant also in a contemporary corporate setting. Back then, Jack of all trades was a true compliment. Over time, the world changed.

The specialists came into fashion when society evolved far enough to sustain itself with distribution of services and goods. It’s a fascinating ecosystem that created the blacksmith as well as the poet, the scientist as well as the artist. Increased specialization in organizations continued to accelerate as a result of the industrial revolution. The bigger organization you had, the more you could gain from producing specialists (performing better because of their depth of expertise and focus, costing less because others could be trained to do the same specialized tasks, and exposing companies to less risk because they could more easily be replaced). If that sounds mechanistic and boring, that’s just because I think it is. I’ll talk more about that another day, because I want to highlight some wonderful specializations, too. But as the specialist flag was raised, down came the generalist. And so it was that the extended expression “Jack of all trades, master of none” marked the end of an era for the Jills and Jacks. Fast-forward to present time.

Look at start-up companies. A single person or a rather small group of people. They need to develop their products or services, market them, support them, sell them, deploy them, do the company finances, build an organization, and a thousand other things. That necessitates a broad set of skills. And it requires something else that often goes hand in hand; the ability and willingness to learn new skills. They are not specialists in any area – they are hybrids who can and will do it all.

Look at agile software development. A few people in each team, working towards a common goal. No hierarchical models to claim or relinquish ownership of a certain item; those best suited – which usually means those with some time to spend – take on the tasks. Those teams do not accept specialization as a wall to hide behind. They do whatever it takes to get the job they’ve committed to done.

Look at the best marketers, farmers, programmers, nurses, designers, CFOs, restaurant owners, testers, managers, truck drivers, software companies, non-profit organizations – there’s a wind of change blowing in our world, and it brings with it whispers of autonomy, self-organization, and a massive need for multi-talented people. It is the rebirth of renaissance women and men. Perhaps they never really went out of style?

So, tonight I’ll raise my glass and salute you, Jills and Jacks. I believe you have the potential to be masters of anything.

Bjorn “The Mayor” Karlsson

Footnotes:

1. I don’t mean talent in the “I got this for free by magic or chance” sense, but as in “I’m really good at it because I work hard to be good”.  

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2 comments on “Master of None
  1. RIPTerry RIPTerry says:

    There is a growing buzz about the brand new idea of ‘T Shaped People’, (yup, the new Jacks and Jills!) who work really well in more participative companies. Have a read of Valve’s Employee Handbook (pdf) to see What Gabe Newell and his pals think about T-Shaped People (page 46) and read the whole handbook to see how a ‘No Managers’ company works.
    The right Jacks and Jills, working in an open organization that offers ‘freedom with responsibility’, can work miracles! I saw a slide the other day comparing turnover to employee numbers, with a stunning example:

    Volvo – 14.2 MSEK Turnover, 20,000 Employees
    Mojang (Minecraft) – 18.6 MSEK Turnover, 28 Employees.

    A small group of talented anarchists with a vision, (usually with a larger-than-life genius leading the way), can always outperform any large corporation!
    But if you prefer this type of company, is there a risk that it must mean ‘stay small’ and ‘stay private’? Isn’t compartmentalizing your employees just a large companies unavoidable way of dealing with the law of diminishing returns (or the law of increasing opportunity costs) in organizations?
    Another variable appears to be related to the rise of the Knowledge Worker – the industrialization of that old-fashioned type of company which ‘actually makes stuff’ led to improvement processes designed to produce a predictable quality end product; reliably, with lower costs. In those companies, avoiding wasting raw materials or shipping defective products are maybe bigger drivers than empowering the workforce?
    For more on this type of company, try Googling ‘Firms of Endearment’. It’s very much in line with what you are saying – but goes much further. ‘Jacks and Jills’, or ‘T-shaped people’ are defined as High Performing, Self-actualized, socially conscious, engaged, empathic, and committed to the success of the business, and it is because they are allowed to become stakeholders in it’s success, and because they believe they are making a positive difference!
    Right, lets all get down to gorky park and start making wind!

    • Bjorn Bjorn says:

      Very interesting reading, and certainly validates the discussion on Jills and Jacks. Thank you for sharing! Seems to me that you have enough to say on the topic to contribute an article…if you feel like it, don’t hesitate to contact me.

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