The Multipotentialist

Ever since Frederick Taylor suggested applying Adam Smith’s principle of the Division of Labor within the production and industrial engineering industry, to increase worker productivity, employee engagement has gone down and employee turnover spiraled up. Henry Ford was one of the first to apply Taylor’s scientific management theory and the effects were detrimental: employee turnover rose to 370% – in 1913 Ford had to hire more than 52.000 men to keep a workforce of only 14.000.

Even so, it took another ninety years before managers realized that specialization -following the implementation of the division of labor- wasn’t the holy grail after all. Ricardo Semler’s book Maverick just hit the right cord.

Semler’s book inspired me in 1993 to think differently about the organization of work; even before I became part of the culture of business. It had a profound impact on my career. Everywhere I went, Taylorism ruled. Not just in production but in all parts of the organization. It not only caused the fragmentation of the organization into separate groups, each with its own classification system of the world around them, but it drove people into believing that other groups posed a threat to their success, or at least felt they were in some kind of competition with each other. I later realized that fragmentation is actually killing cross-functional collaboration, thereby stifling innovation, which for the most part takes place between the functions, which in turn drives businesses to their early demise.

Regardless, schools, academies, and universities around the world to this day force people to chose between professions, while strongly discouraging – and in some cases even excluding students – to learn multiple disciplines. The fact is that our educational system needs to fulfill a business demand, similar to how the business needs to fulfill customer demand. And businesses demand more specialists. Generalists are dismissed by default ─ their contribution can’t be measured with the means of the scientific method and therefore they are perceived worthless.

Innovation happens at the interfaces

Harvard concluded: “As innovation hinges more and more on interdisciplinary cooperation, digitalization transforms business at a breakneck pace, and globalization increasingly requires people to work across national borders, the demand for executives who can lead projects at interfaces keeps rising.”

Today the vast majority of innovation and business-development opportunities lie in the interfaces between functions, offices, or organizations. In short, the integrated solutions that most customers want, but companies wrestle with developing require horizontal collaboration (across the functional silos).

Digitalization at the interfaces

Due to the sudden rise of digitalization, the demand for generalists, polymaths, and multipotentialists will rise accordingly, as they – contrary to the specialists – know how to connect the dots, from having both a breadth of perspective as well as the depth of expertise.

Mind you, I’m not suggesting that you should fire each and every specialist and hire generalists instead. All I’m saying is that for your business to survive and thrive in the digital age, it needs a healthy amount of generalists, to increase the effectiveness and quality of the value that needs to be created.

The Multipotentialist

I hope you’ll enjoy the following TED talk by Emilie Wapnick. Her story will help you understand that the idea of destiny or the one true calling, the idea that we each have one great thing we are meant to do during our time on this earth, and that you need to figure out what that thing is and devote your life to it, isn’t normal. It just became the norm because we didn’t know any better.



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