Versatilists

Creative Generalist, one of my favorite blogs, had a post that caught my eye. Entitled Versatilists, the author discusses a book by Thomas Friedman called The World is Flat in which Friedman offers up the term “versatilist” to describe people who are “able to apply a depth of skill to a progressively widening scope of situations and experiences” (quote from the Creative Generalist). Here’s an excerpt that the Creative Generalist took from the book:

Specialists generally have deep skills and narrow scope, giving them expertise that is recognized by peers but seldom valued outside their immediate domain. … Generalists have broad scope and shallow skills, enabling them to respond or act reasonably quickly but often without gaining or demonstrating the confidence of their partners or customers. Versatilists, in contrast, apply depth of skill to a progressively widening scope of situations and experiences, gaining new competencies, building relationships, and assuming new roles.

Although I haven’t read Friedman’s book, the idea of a versatilist intrigues me. As I’ve discussed in a previous post, I’m interested in how the design market perceives generalists vs. how they view specialists. My first impression is that large design firms prefer specialists and that generalists are more valued in smaller firms. But now here’s another category that seems to bridge both worlds. Would a designer with generalist tendencies be able to find happiness in a large firm as a versatilist – specializing, yes, because that’s what the market may require, but having freedom to learn beyond one narrow area and apply skills to a number of specialties?

The Creative Generalist goes on to question the concept’s sustainability in the real world, however, arguing that the way of contemporary business requires employees to be either generalists or specialists. I’m not sure I agree. It strikes me that while having a staff of specialists ensures that project teams have deep knowledge, it’s not a bad thing to have a few talented people around who can lend a larger perspective to a project and be useful if project needs don’t neatly fit into the available specialists’ areas of expertise, specialists get sick or need extra personpower to meet a deadline, or some other unexpected gap arises.

Being a versatilist could be a decent solution for generalist pegs who are being forced into specialist holes. Seeking out versatilists for staff postions could be a wise investment for large firms.

A&D community – what’s the reality here?

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