Imagine Leonardo da Vinci trying to find a job during the Industrial Revolution. Today, he would probably own a startup or change his name to Elon Musk.
During the Industrial Revolution, we turned craftsmen and women into single-skilled workers. It was an appropriate solution to the tame problem of mass production. We lost the concept of constant learning and the idea of mastery and gained, at the time, our perceived path to a better life. Simplify people’s contributions to the work environment to mass produce identical products in the absence of appropriate machines.
Today, we have robots and automation that make cheap mass production a commodity. Will people, therefore, lose their jobs or pick up more complex work as they did before their potential was minimized for a greater good?
Before the Industrial Revolution, that is how workers were described: as craftsmen and craftswomen. Skills or jobs were understood to be learned over an extended period, often a lifetime. Continuous learning was a default. Craftsmen would not only improve their skills, but build and iterate their tools. Combining the theoretical with the practical, they would improve their craft by exploring many aspects beyond their immediate context. Painters would build their canvases, go into nature to collect ingredients for different paints, and generally further their understanding of biology, chemistry, and manufacturing to improve their painting.
Artists—or craftsmen—like Leonardo da Vinci are undoubtedly exceptional, but his diversity proves how considering many skills and thinking models can improve the variety and impact of an outcome. It was natural for him to look outside the box for new knowledge and solutions.
Today’s jobs don’t resemble that approach. Modern companies don’t require such diversity in a resource because they are not structured for diversity to come to fruition easily. Imagine Leonardo da Vinci working in a factory on a conveyor belt: a painter, a sculptor, a medical researcher, an engineer of bridges, and military equipment. Recruiters and employers would be confused about where to put him because skills are tightly controlled silos within departments and industries. It is all verticals, and verticals mean knowledge, which does not easily move.
Traditionally, companies are not looking for self-starters, which eliminates people with multiple skills and opinions beyond a single silo. There is a reason why Elon Musk is better off as an entrepreneur. He is arguably good at starting a company, but not to be hired by one. Leonardo da Vinci surely fits that pattern.
However, the value of single-skilled people has been depleting in recent years. Self-learners, cross-disciplinary workers, or horizontal teams are becoming increasingly important to solve business challenges and create new opportunities. Most transformation projects go through a round of identifying those characteristics in a workforce, to use them as early adopters of change. Startups consist of small teams with multiple and diverse responsibilities.
Service design, or design thinking, is an old design practice experiencing a profound renaissance. It is one of the most cross- disciplinary professions, combining research, design, prototyping, workshop facilitation, and people skills with production, operational design, and business modeling. Its essence is to bring people from a variety of backgrounds together to investigate a problem from different angles. This is what people mean when they talk about collaboration today: holistic observation and investigation of a problem to find the best possible solution.
Today a collaborative approach does not mean a group of people in a room, it means breaking down silos to get a more complete picture of the problem.
This is not a fad. Some of the more progressive educational institutions are recognizing that companies need a different workforce. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology has started asking for applicants with cross-disciplinary skill sets, identifying the benefits of horizontal rather than “siloed” skills.3
If you are looking at the world with this mindset, you might think that single-skill silos or specializations are running out of steam to find solutions for the future.
Tim Carmichael, Ex-CDO/CAO of the British Army, makes it evident that horizontal, collaborative thinking had indeed been identified by the military as the most effective way forward. If someone like the military considers a shift in approach, it is worth listening to.
I remember back in the ‘70s and ‘80s, my teachers told me that all I had to do in life was to learn one single thing I was good at and then do that until I retire. This single-skill career is not our reality anymore. We need a workforce that is closer to what craftsmen and craftswomen were: self-learning and ever evolving. We are losing a lot of value if we are taming people into single-skilled robots.
For a long time, businesses have been struggling to keep single- skill workers motivated and productive. There is boredom and frustration in being a small cog in a big wheel. Our brains are not made for it. To fight this boredom, people are sometimes told to take a hobby. The larger the company, the more likely it is to offer extra activities like football clubs and yoga classes. These aim to improve morale, purpose, and retention, but they often feel like a placebo for hobbies, a quick fix for the lack of diversity in someone’s job. Does this not feel artificial, inefficient, or unnecessary?
Today, most people learn a new job in three months, and then it becomes repetitive and often underwhelming. But when guilds and craftsmen and craftswomen were still the dominant contributors to innovation, learning a skill required a lifetime because so many different pieces of knowledge had to be considered and evaluated. Back then, having a job could be as complex as life itself. Being a craftsman was a very intellectual endeavor, at times even requiring traveling across different cultures to gain more varied knowledge.
Carpenters still practice this approach today. The “Wanderjahre,”4 or journeyman years, mean junior carpenters travel by foot to work on different projects across different regions, learning a diverse set of skills and viewpoints surrounding their craft. The equivalent of this is sending your workers to different companies to experience different variations of the same processes or learn new tools. This would then widen their horizons, and they would come back to apply the learnings in the best possible way. Which company does things like that today? Would it not be more sustainable to have people who iteratively learn, test, and improve things?
In some places, we can still see a focus on lifetime learning, too. Japanese arts like calligraphy, sword-making, or being a sushi chef are produced with a mindset that believes in years of insight and constant learning. Knowing everything there is to know about a given task is the essence of understanding and quality. It is expected to take a lifetime to achieve perfection in a craft.
Why are hobbies so separated from contributing to your job at work? As it turns out, many innovations come from people tinkering in their own time with ideas similar to what they do at work; yet they often fail to contribute or to gain recognition at work.
Google has recognized this problem and largely avoided it, at least in its early days. Two of its biggest inventions, Gmail and AdWords, came from people tinkering outside of business as usual. The latter especially would become a large revenue stream for the company. This innovation did not come out of formal work; it came from a few workers doing things outside of their silos. There is a history of people leaving companies that did not recognize their interests and therefore lost significant value and potential. Is our classic business setup ignoring characteristics like self-learning and alternative activities on purpose?
The siloed structure of companies can create confusion when it collides with a person who has eclectic capabilities. My bachelor’s degree was in graphic design. Around 1998, I learned how to code websites, then apps and hardware. In short, I was a designer who could code and a coder who could design. I won’t even mention the art- and human-centered research capabilities I acquired around 2000.
In most of my interviews after my master’s degree, when my experience covered at least three silos of capabilities, I experienced confusion. The companies were looking for a single, deskilled set of capabilities for tame problem-solving. For some reason, no one saw the extra value I could bring. This was twenty years ago.
The essence of the meeting went a bit like this: “So, are you a coder or a designer?”
“Well, I am both.”
“We need to either put you into our development team or our design team.”
“Don’t you have an integrated process?” “No, you have to be one or the other.” “No problem, which one do you need?” “But you are neither.”
“I think I am both; you get two for one.”
“I don’t know how that fits into our process.”
The conversation ended somewhere with, “We need to think
about what we can do with you.”
Today, T-shaped people that have secondary and tertiary skill sets are heavily sought after. A great team member means being anything from a researcher to a facilitator of workshops; an analyst to a maker of physical or code-based prototypes; a developer of business cases to an operational modeler. These are the people needed to be comfortable around wicked problems.
Craftsmen and women used to have cross-disciplinary tendencies, or you could say that their crafts integrated other views and skills. Their continuous learning would make them deconstruct existing solutions to build new and better ones. They moved between theory and practice freely. Doing so was part of their job. The term “outside the box” is essentially describing the ability to step outside one’s silo or constraint. Today, this is hailed as a feature. Back then, it was part of everyday business. One of the most significant facts is that we shaped education toward creating silos, rather than enabling learning across disciplines.
The only thing that interferes with my learning is education.
How much does our modern approach decrease the aggregate synergetic value and benefit of a complex human being? I am not the first to say education might need a revision. What we might want to consider is making constant learning a part of every job. Instead of making workers uncomfortable because learning phases are the exception, let’s make it a continuous aspect of working life again.
A few weeks back, I surveyed LinkedIn to find out to what extent of people’s skills are underused in their jobs. The overwhelming majority felt less than 50 percent of their skill set was being utilized at their workplace. What does that tell us?
Study the science of art. Study the art of science. Develop your senses—especially learn how to see. Realize that everything connects to everything else.
—Leonardo da Vinci
Outliers like Elon Musk and Leonardo da Vinci do not support the idea that everyone can be a polymath, but science has shown a correlation between having multiple skills and having success and impact.
As Robert Root-Bernstein notes in Multiple Giftedness in Adults: The Case of Polymaths,6 “Creativity researchers often assert that specialization is a requirement for adult success, that skills and knowledge do not transfer across domains, and that the domain dependence of creativity makes general creativity impossible.”
If either high specialization or cross-disciplinary disposition are giving us a statistical edge on being successful and solving the world’s challenges, why are we only trying one of those approaches?
People are naturally diverse and multi-skilled. We have multiple skills at different levels because we are built to learn throughout our lifetime. The more we know, the more options we have. The more we embrace a multitude of views, the closer we are to deconstructive thinking. Life is a wicked problem and we are built to deal with it. This makes us designed to deal with wicked problems. Tame problems are artificial simplifications. The Industrial Revolution was an artificial way to restrict our potential to solve a tame problem. We need to recover from it. Our complex future needs this. You might argue that we are living in an era of wicked problems.
In the next chapter, we will be looking at the pivotal moment that reduced humans into single-skilled resources.