Several years ago, I was asked by a University to coach their students how to become multipotentialite. This rare breed of students had gone through a rigorous and stringent interview process to qualify for the programme. Like a doting parent, they believed these students could change geography, be anything they want. All of them were energetic and articulate, and could change the world in a single leap.
What is this multipotentialite, asked I. I was pointed to a TED talk “Why some of us don’t have one true calling”. Caree coach Emilie Wapnick coined a term “multipotentialite” to describe “generalists”.
Wapnick has romanticised the idea of being interested in too many things and being bored quickly. Her competence as an English major is in communicating and creativity – she now works as a workshop presenter and motivational speaker, while ignoring the fact that many of her other dabblings are quite amateurish interests.
Many of the “multipotentialites” she showcased, too had one deep area of expertise which they transferred to other areas.
When the world exploded with globalisation in 1990s, the great headhunting debate was who made a better manager? Generalists vs specialists. Generalists won hands down.
Soon the marketplace became overcrowded by job hoppers, bored after 1 year on the job and yet not quite made much contributions.
Today a more appropriate description would be I vs T-shaped skills, often attributed to McKinsey.
I-shaped skills are deep knowledge and experience in one context, and not proven or applied to other areas. Wapnick’s dabblings into music and a rock band would be a “dash” “—“, jack of all trades.
In both I and T shaped skills, depth of experience is highly valued. A T-shaped professional, will be one with deep expertise but able to adapt that skill across different functions to create a new product. Effective collaboration in a discipline like design benefits from individuals who have combined this with a range of applications in different professional environments.
Steve Jobs is a T-shaped professional. He has always immersed himself in the Silicon Valley context and working with other I-shaped professionals. Not many of us have heard of his way-off predictions regarding the Segway. (Read Adam Grant’s book on “The Originals”).
How does one become a T-shaped individual?
1. Deepen your knowledge core
In “Enhancing Adult Motivation to Learn“, Wlodkowski makes a case that “knowing our subject well enhances our confidence, flexibility and creativity. When a person has really mastered a concept well, he can be playful with it. Spontaneity and improvisation are more possible for the competent. Deep understanding of a subject transforms mere information into useable knowledge”. (p54 2008).
Remaining as an I-shaped individual runs the risk of your job being automated.
2. Update your expertise
Designlab suggests to drink from several fountains. “Design, like most creative disciplines, is constantly changing — in terms of technology, standards, culture, and client expectations. Get subscribed to the top sites and journals in your area. Bookmark, keep a log, experiment, and exceed your comfort zone as often as you can.”
3. Broaden your horizons
Expand the range of projects you take on. Do a stocktake of your current skills. What other industries could you apply or transfer them to. Add Breadth to your depth. Cross-functional skills eg. Understanding finance and how to market your products.
4. Embrace your inner wiring
Figure out your Myers-Briggs personality type to be more self-aware and more generous to those who see the world differently. Train in conflict resolution, change management process to deal with difficulties to build trust and empathy between collaborators.
5. Pick up Softskills
Tim Brown of IDEO suggests that T-shaped individuals have empathy and enthusiasm about other fields. This creates trust.
Many researchers now talk about X-shaped. The X factor or Charisma, rare quality which some attribute to the gift of God.
While T-shaped people are great collaborators, when it comes to hiring a new leader for an organisation, the qualities are more X-shaped. These leaders have depth of subject, professional esteem and credibility. Similarly, they are able to support diverse teams. Many websites cite John Lasseter or Ed Catmull of Pixar as X-shaped. This isn’t for everyone: roles demanding X-shaped people tend to be focused on strategy and team management.