Often times ‘Jack of all trades’ is appended with ‘master of none’ and over the years has found its application only in a negative context. In the recent years , people have come to prefer either A generalist or A specialist . May be a restructured version — “Jack of all trades, Master of some” is more relevant.
In nature, Specialist species thrive only when conditions are perfect. In recent decades, particularly as the workforce has moved towards technology firms, specialists have become a hot commodity. In Silicon Valley, for example, employers wage wars for much-coveted technical engineers and coders who build the search engines and social networks we value so highly. This makes sense: referring to nature, environments with more competition breed more specialists. But what happens when the ecosystem shifts? Despite the corporate world’s insistence on specialization, the workers most likely to come out on top are generalists — but not just because of their innate ability to adapt to new workplaces, job descriptions or cultural shifts. But it will be increasingly valuable to know “a little bit about a lot.”
In the words of Naval Ravikant — “Specialization is for insects . We have one life, so why waste it trying to do only one thing”. Philosophy aside, there is some truth in the statement. In my opinion , with specialized work being commoditized (today with GPT3 writing code to someday robots doing surgery) probably the only way to get better, be relevant and solve complex problems of the future will be — to be a polymath.
While the concept of generalist/multi potential can be applicable to many job functions, it has a lot of significance in the modern-day Product Management. Product Managers at their core are innovators , influencers and owners of the product starting from strategy, P&L to execution.
The reason generalists Product Managers will thrive :
1. Ability to do seamless execution : Everyone is familiar with the below triangle which emphasizes the different functions that support a product and whose ownership lies with the product manager. Hence, it is imperative for product managers to be Jack of all trades and have working knowledge of all areas to synthesize conflicting inputs ,work across functions and to integrate or synchronize the work of others so that products and portfolios can be planned, developed, launched, and managed in a timely manner.
2. Ability to provide breakthrough with new perspectives: Both in a start-up and mature organization, the degree of responsibilities of product managers might change but having a broader set of knowledge, curiosity and experience helps bring in new perspectives to the problem and build resilience in the product ,process and teams. The breadth of knowledge can serve as the link between the hard-won scientific breakthroughs and the rest of the world. People with a broader range of interests /Jack of all trades may be more likely to be aware of developments outside of fields they have experience in, and thus quicker to jump on novel knowledge when it appears and at the same time have the ability to quickly adopt the same.
3. Ability to provide meaning to data across verticals: With digital age, we’ve become a society that’s data rich and meaning poor. A rise in specialists in all areas , has left us with tremendous data & content but no knowledge of how valuable it is without context. Context is what is provided by Product Manager and helpful in understanding the market, product relevance and how to make necessary changes.
4. Ability to adapt and pave way amongst ambiguity: In a constantly changing and chaotic world , generalists tend to accept traditions, perspectives, ambiguity and contradictions in a much more constructive way than specialist. Relying on a single perspective, can be problematic, even detrimental to predicting an accurate outcome. With rapidly developing technologies, shifting market demands and the changes occasioned by these developments and filled with ambiguity, Product Managers need to have a knack to adopt and adapt quickly.
The only way for product managers to be successful in balancing all competing priorities is to be hyper-focused on being Jack of all trades.
What has been more beneficial in your career — being a “specialist” or a wide-ranging “generalist”?