One skill is no longer enough

TourBus, created by Sam Mullins, an art director at Mullen

Should a copywriter know how to launch and execute a social media campaign? Is it necessary for an art director to be able to program a Maker Bot? Do you think a planner needs enough knowledge of Final Cut Pro to edit her own videos?

A few years ago the answer to all of these questions might have been no. But that may not be the case anymore. In a recent book called Mash Up, Ian Sanders, marketer, author, FT columnist argues that it’s no longer enough develop a single skill. Ian’s premise is that you’ll find a more fulfilling job, enjoy a competitive edge and make more money if you develop or leverage multiple skills.

Forward thinking companies want multi-skilled people

But in the long run, you may have no choice. At innovative companies, diversity is the new expertise. IDEO doesn’t have constrained job descriptions. They expect you to design your career and contributions in the same way they solve problems for clients. At Google’s Creative Labs, which has grabbed some of the ad industry’s top creative talent, Strategy Director Ben Malbon seeks “people fluent in one language, but literate in many.” The same is true at Mullen. In the long run, an art director who can invent and launch a new app might be more valuable than one who can only art direct.

In some cases there are new positions emerging that in and of themselves call for multiple skills. Five years ago creative technologist, social media strategist and experience designer were non-existent roles in most agencies. Chances are that over time, these newer jobs will become even more prevalent, or at least offer greater opportunity.

You may already be that T-Shaped multi-skilled person. If you’re not, here are some simple things you might want to do.

1. Learn more about technology and what you can do with it.

Everything from emerging social platforms to HTML5 to the accelerometer in your mobile phone. The more you become aware of their potential, the more problems you can solve and the more opportunities you can create.

2. Make something yourself.

These days if you can think it you can create it. With resources that include Apple’s software developer kits, 3-D printers, cheap hosting on Amazon and the distribution power of the Internet, you (or your employer) don’t need a lot of money to invent an app or even a platform. Mullen art director Sam Mullins, just launched this. TourBus.

3. Partner with people who do what you don’t.

I had a student last semester who conceived a platform to help students change their housing. He had no idea how to build it, but decided to find some other students who did. Six months later BU Room Swap was up and running.

4. Change where you sit

I’m constantly surprised what a difference this can make. If you are surrounded by people who do exactly what you do all day long you lose out on the serendipitous collisions that open your mind to different ways of problem solving.

Multi-skilled does not mean generalist

However, being-multi-skilled is not shorthand for lacking a deep talent in at least one area. Simply being a generalist won’t get you hired. At least until the typical agency staffing plan gets reinvented. Most plans don’t include generalist or multi-skilled as a job description. They list all the usual positions, from account management to studio artist. A client agrees to pay for a certain number of FTE’s and that determines who gets hired and put on the business. And at the end of the day writers still have to write, designers have to design, and animators have to animate. The objective is to master your craft and learn enough about the other roles and functions that can make you better at yours.

Share your thoughts. Working somewhere that welcomes or demands multi-skilled contributions? Or frustrated in a company that still compartmentalizes people?

 

26 comments
tomcunniff
tomcunniff

This is both exactly right and a dangerous trap.

 

Curiosity is essential, but it's too easy to become someone who is adequate at a wide range of tasks but really valuable at none.

 

My advice to people starting out is to be curious about everything, but stay focused on developing your core talent.

 

Peter Drucker (as usual) said it best: "We all have a vast number of areas in which we have no talent or skill and little chance of becoming even mediocre. In those areas a knowledge workers should not take on work, jobs and assignments. It takes far more energy to improve from incompetence to mediocrity than it takes to improve from first-rate performance to excellence.”

 

 

edwardboches
edwardboches

Like that label: The third skill. @JoshuaWalker_ @TedSchadler

Steve831
Steve831

Spot on, the core skill set these days is learning &  growing. Period.

debkmorrison
debkmorrison

@AddisonMas @edwardboches Boches nailed it again! You creative strategists know that. #UOcreativeStrat

johnyau
johnyau

@thinkmaloney @edwardboches @iansanders Indeed! I'd like to have craftsmanship as my skill group, no matter it's digital- or hand-crafted.

edwardboches
edwardboches

@cricque @ShareThis Thanks for that shout out. Appreciate it.

David Sloly
David Sloly

As a creative director working for many advertising and marketing agencies I have seen a real need for people who can cut across the silos and deliver a joined up solution. The new creative thinker needs to understand the part that data can play as well as headlines, image, storytelling and all the other good stuff. It seems to transpire that a healthy dose of curiosity makes for a well rounded creative leader. The alternative is to keep sending the idea from department to department until the idea is killed by a combination of 'not invented here' syndrome and 'committee' thinking.

Disclaimer - I co wrote the book with Ian.

edwardboches
edwardboches moderator

@apierno  I think that one limitation is, as mentioned, that people will think it's an excuse for being a generalist. In fact, got that question on another post from a young Millennial who may have been hoping for such a situation. Take a look at some of the credits these days on the digital submissions in award shows. You can't hand anything off anymore. You have to be comfortable beyond your initial area. Plus, if you really want to push your own creativity on anything from social platforms to actual products/services, you'll want to develop multiple skills. Not to mention the next generation is likely to have them and make you obsolete even sooner.

IanSanders
IanSanders

@edwardboches good post; thanks. I will email you link to FT piece once it's up, tonight London time

SteveS1
SteveS1

Excellent advice, Edward, for industry vets as well as rookies.  I'd apply this to top execs, even/especially on the client side.  

 

Below, apierno asks about limitations.  Yes, of course, no one person can develop skills for every kind of task.  But I think your point is about possibilities, not limitations.  The main piece of advice is to make Curiosity About New Things bigger than Fear Of New Things.  You don't have to be good at all those New Things, but you have to understand them.  http://admajoremblog.blogspot.com/2009/09/are-you-specialist-or-generalist.html

 

Curiosity won't kill you; it will lead you out of your comfort zone and into something new, exciting and fun.

apierno
apierno

@edwardboches Does the author discuss limitations of this in the book?

edwardboches
edwardboches moderator

 @tomcunniff Good point. And there are those who use this thinking as an excuse for not being great at anything. Need both. Vertical axis - expertise. Horizontal axis - range.

IanSanders
IanSanders

@johnyau great, love the sound of your 'unifier'.....

cricque
cricque

@edwardboches Glad to do it - you always find the juicy stuff.

edwardboches
edwardboches moderator

 @David Sloly Until killed by someone. Yes. Dead on. Also agree with curiosity. The people who are least invited to the future are those who simply aren't willing to learn new things and stay open minded. It may make them uncomfortable in the short run, but it's really the only way.  

edwardboches
edwardboches

@forrestfrazier Thank you brother. Hope all is well. Miss having you around.

uponacloud
uponacloud

 @SteveS1 Once I had a discussion with a housemate about my work aspirations and such. I am not a generalist, more of a Renaissance pratictioner as you quote in your blog post. He argued that I have to choose what I really want to do and do only that, or employers will never want to hire me because I have too many different things listed on a CV (which in fact are all related to each other when not exactly the same thing, mostly PR). As a wannabe leader of tomorrow (metaphorically speaking, I'm 23 in this very moment) I think it's important that if I am not good at everything I at least understand everything and the reasons why the person I will have in my team is the best for that role. In addition to this I am also one of the genuine creative kind, highly specialised jobs that don't allow curiosity for what is beyond your comfort zone bore me. I am interested in branding in all its aspects (including advertising, which is not always considered part of it), if I have to pick a specialisation. It's the narrowest one I can pick. I can't help myself needing constant different stimulus.This discussion is comforting :)

dsloly
dsloly

@apierno Hi Adam, yes the limitations are discussed in the book

edwardboches
edwardboches

@apierno Confess that I have not read the entire book. But you can talk to @iansanders directly.

tomcunniff
tomcunniff

 @edwardboches I like "Vertical axis - expertise. Horizontal axis - range" very much. For me, this captures exactly the point.

 

tomcunniff
tomcunniff

 @SteveS1 Loved your post. Young specialists tend to fall in love with his or her specialty and view it as the center of the universe. With business maturity, we should begin to understand how our specialty fits in with others -- and develop a sense of relative strengths and weaknesses of each specialty. For me it's less about being able to play every role, and more about understanding and respecting how each role contributes. The only way to do that is to ask good questions and listen carefully to the answers.

edwardboches
edwardboches moderator

 @uponacloud  @SteveS1 Well put both of you. And good post. The challenge is that not everything moves at the same time. (I.e. The future is here, just not evenly distributed.) So job descriptions, staffing plans, and the knowledge of those who create them all linger what is emerging as the new reality and the new requirements. It's also compounded by the fact that while someone is charged with creating some amazing new physical light show and the platform to host the digital participation, someone else is still making a print ad. So old models are still relevant, too. The trick is evolving to a blend that makes sense.

IanSanders
IanSanders

@apierno you need to ensure your multiple skills are in harmony/ have a common unifier. Avoid being a shallow generalist! cc @edwardboches

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