Handy expressions rise and fall in popularity depending on the times. One of the expressions that you see everywhere these days is Jack of all trades. What many people forget about is that second part of this expression - but master of none.
All of a sudden, it’s nowhere near as great as it sounds at first.
But, what exactly is the verdict?
Is it better to have mastery of a single skill with which you will chase success or to become familiar with a little bit of everything, just enough to deliver a mediocre-to-good result?
Are we living in a world that encourages a non-linear method of learning which results in only superficial knowledge?
Have true experts become “rare, invaluable commodities”?
Both sides of the argument boast intricately intertwined advantages and disadvantages, so it is quite difficult to give a definitive answer to the aforementioned questions.
Thorough knowledge of a single discipline can make someone irreplaceable in their respective field, which can (but doesn’t have to) suit the employers. Unfortunately, this often depends on the company’s financial situation.
On the other hand, know-it-alls put on different hats depending on the person who is in dire need of their assistance. They are also often the first person to be “recruited” by colleagues. The result of this is they get snowed under innumerable tasks.
The secret, at least according to the ancient Jedi warriors, is in the balance.
How to define versatility?
Our interests change over time, as do our proclivities, opinions and career paths. Time affects what sort of music we listen, what kind of sport we enjoy, what type of films we prefer to watch, and, just as importantly, whether we prefer to work in React or Vue.js.
The lucky few stumble upon a discipline they are meant to master and they readily dedicate their entire lives to it. Unfortunately, a lot of smart, diligent people go through hell and back in search of such a perfect fit. The biggest fear for many is that they will waste their entire lives doing something “just because” – and this fear motivates them to become Jacks of all trades.
Still, at least some consolation can be found in the fact that we accrue a lot of useful, applicable information through time and experience. After all, one of the definitions of creativity is to be able to connect what seem to be totally disparate facts, as well as to combine principles in a way that is surprising and unexpected?
There is another great expression that defines this in an economic way – as “out of the box thinking”.
One of the good examples that resulted from such thinking is keyframe animation. A similar principle is used in automating the effects in music production. Professionals that invent such solutions show the balance of qualities such as technical ingenuity and humanistic elegance – because the simplest solutions usually turn out to be the best.
Bill Gates said it very well: “I choose a lazy person to do a hard job. Because a lazy person will find an easy way to do it.”
This statement can easily be interpreted as a confirmation of the need for that “oomph”, the humanistic elegance which can only be achieved through versatility, in order to make a real difference. Such inventive solutions are always conceived by people that are more than professionals in their field – those that are creative and versatile.
Vivify Ideas nurtures the culture of autonomy, both in the context of teams and individuals working for the company. Many processes within the company are arranged on a personal level – between individual employees. This means that versatility is expected in order to maintain the climate where colleagues can freely develop in countless imaginable ways. There are no constraints when it comes to “role” expectations which means that, for example, anyone who wants to learn about human resources can join the HR team.
This is how back-end developers become exceptional project managers, how designers develop administrative skills, etc. In this way, the collective becomes the assembly of highly competent people who are capable of delivering so much more than what their job description entails. And what’s more – they do it with enthusiasm.
It is a dynamic, flexible and highly modular community, primed and ready for unpredictable challenges.
Of course, colleagues that are highly specialized experts in their fields make a focused contribution to the company. Their advantage lies in reliability and performance within a field which also provides them with an unrelenting drive.
On the other hand, practice has shown that versatile individuals adapt to new professional circumstances more easily, simply because they are usually open by nature. This helps them communicate with several departments at once and develop a relationship with most of the organization.
That being said, we would be remiss not to point out the other side of the coin when it comes to versatility. A workday of a multi-disciplinary person can easily become a bedlam of smaller, unassociated tasks. Each of these tasks has its own value of priority, and depending on the assertiveness of your colleagues, everything can look equally urgent. This leads to situations where the extremely frustrating statements such as “Come on, it’ll take you only five minutes,” become commonplace.
In such situations, a versatile person invests a lot of time and energy in micromanagement of smaller problems that don’t add up to much at the end of the day. This state of affairs will pretty much discourage every sensible person that works hard, but that’s only one aspect of the problem.
How can you stay collected and thrive in such an environment?
The answer to this question can be divided into a few useful tips that broadly define all the aspects of the problem.
Be in control of your time. Time is the most valuable commodity in the world. One has to acquire the skill to solve tasks inefficiently and this dictates your success just as much as your willingness to devote more personal time to your job.
However, the way you use your time at work also depends on a number of external circumstances if you are a part of a dynamic collective, most notably your colleagues. In other words, your time at work is not entirely in your hands.
For example, scrum meetings will be scheduled based on the average convenience for all colleagues in order to make sure everyone attends. Some of these colleagues will work on two projects simultaneously so the arrangements may shift to accommodate them.
The only way to really truly manage your own time is to predict the unpredictable – plan out your work throughout the day by giving yourself some leeway.
Prioritize tasks based on your calling. Everybody is well aware of the fact that, at least on paper, “deploy crash” is a problem you will definitely prioritize over a mere alteration of font size in the “about us” section of the website.
Unfortunately, it often happens that you prioritize your tasks based on the suggestions of our co-workers. Estimate and assign priorities to these tasks, but don’t let the prioritization of tasks end here.
Prioritize tasks based on your calling – because even though you are “Jack of all trades”, you have a clearly defined profession, a role and a place in the company. With this element added to the equation, it should become quite clear which tasks should be high on the list.
However, sometimes this will not be enough and you will have to take an extra step in communication with some of your colleagues…
Stop saying yes. Saying “yes” to everyone will bury you in tasks that are not strictly part of your job description and you will not know where to begin.
If you already have several tasks on your plate and the time allocated to them has already been reserved, you have every right to push the new tasks to the back of the list. If your colleague asks for more than you can handle, it is best to avoid the binary yes/no response. Instead, briefly lay out your temporary (no pun intended) situation.
Some colleagues might still push you, which is a moment when you have to take a stand and let them know that there a certain hierarchy of priorities must be followed and that versatility does not entail omnipresence.
The question of expertise vs. versatility is too complex to answer in a story as short as this, especially when you consider all the possible factors that play into it. One thing is for sure - both experts and Jacks of all trades have their place in a modern, agile company.
The Jacks just have to be extra careful not to get spread too thin.