Why it is important to have a Jack of All Trades in your team

Today, I have a special treat for you. At home, my husband and I have conversations…not arguments. We challenge each other intellectually. Last week, Leo and I went back and forth over if being an expert was or was not more valuable than being a Jack of all trades. So, I guess instead of continuing to verbally spar with me, he asked to take the debate to all of you and allow him to guest post here on Report Report. Enjoy and discuss!

“Jack of all trades, master of none” is a figure of speech used in reference to a person that is competent with many skills but is not necessarily outstanding in any particular one. (Wikipedia)

Depending on who you ask, this can be a good or a bad thing. As my wife knows all too well (since we have had many discussions on this topic :)), I’m one of those people in favor of having a Jack of All Trades in your team (or even being one yourself), as I believe such character is an essential component in any company these days, given the increasing importance of multidisciplinary knowledge.

On change, creativity and innovation

If you want to realize how fast things are changing these days, try to talk with kids about how things were during your childhood. I tried this with my 7-years-old not that long ago, and it was quite an experience to try to explain to her how it was to live in a world where the only ways to reach my best friend was to either walk to his house or to call his neighbor who had a landline. To which she replied: “What is a landline?”

This fast pace of change is happening everywhere, both in our personal as well as in our professional lives. As Sir Ken Robinson explores in his brilliant book “Out of Our Minds”, there are three main concerns in the minds of business leaders all over the world:

  1. “they believe a rapid escalation of complexity is the biggest challenge confronting them”, and they expect it to accelerate in the coming years
  2. “they are equally clear that their enterprises today are not equipped to cope effectively with this complexity in the global environment”
  3. “they agree overwhelmingly that the single most important leadership competency for organizations to deal with this growing complexity is creativity”

These leaders believe that creativity is a crucial competency to be able to keep up with the pace of change, constantly innovating to remain competitive. It is important then to realize that innovation usually comes not from deep specialization in one field, but more often than not it comes from making connections between distinct fields, or as Clive Thompson very eloquently explains in a recent article on Wired:

“If you want to spot the next thing, [Bill] Buxton [principal researcher at Microsoft] argues, you just need to go ‘prospecting and mining’—looking for concepts that are already successful in one field so you can bring them to another.”

Doesn’t this ability to navigate multiple fields look a lot like a characteristic you would find in a Jack of All Trades? It certainly appears to be that way to me, and to illustrate this better, let me share a story with you.

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.…

Many years ago, on a certain Christmas Day, my brother and I decided it was time to fix what was probably one of our worst deficiencies in the visual arts: we had never watched Star Wars!

After my brother and I watched all three original movies in the same afternoon, I was completely captured by the story, by Luke’s journey of self-discovery, trial, and fulfillment.

Not so long after that Star Wars-filled Christmas Day, I read an article where George Lucas mentioned that one of the biggest inspirations for the stories of the films, especially its structure, came when he read The Hero with a Thousand Faces, a book by Joseph Campbell first published in 1949. After reading this article, I obviously went to a bookstore (this was pre-Amazon, after all) and bought the book that same day.

As soon as I started reading The Hero with a Thousand Faces I realized how valuable it had been to have spent a good chunk of my early teenage years typing piles and piles of texts for my mom and her friends, who were all studying Psychology (my brother and I made some good money charging per page). It so happens that Campbell’s book was heavily influenced by concepts such as archetypal figures and the collective unconscious first explored by Carl Jung, whom I already knew from quite a few of those Psychology texts.

I was so passionate about these ideas, and the power of the stories that followed The Hero’s Journey structure as described by Campbell in his book, that even though this had absolutely nothing to do with my career in software development, I enrolled in a screenwriting course, which then led to start a Bachelors in Social Sciences with Specialization in Cinema right immediately following.

At the first day in this new university, going through my first formal arts-related study, I was absolutely sure I would flunk very quickly, having only my previous logical/analytical/technical studies as a starting point. But it turned out I was quite wrong, since many of the concepts I learned for software development were quite useful and, above all, the curiosity to explore diverse topics had prepared me well for that course. It prepared me so well, that on my first screenwriting class at the university (in a discipline called Argument), my professor discussed The Hero with a Thousand Faces at length with me, and even let me borrow his own copy of another brilliant and seminal book inspired by Campbell’s masterpiece: The Writer’s Journey, by Christopher Vogler.

Jung conquers Hollywood (and PowerPoint)

The Writer’s Journey is a terrific book that focus on explaining to writers the concepts explored by Campbell, proposing a slightly simplified version of The Hero’s Journey.

The story of how this book got started is also fascinating, with its inception as a seven-page memo that Vogler wrote when he was working at Disney as a story analyst, as he describes himself:

“It was written in the mid-1980s when I was working as a story consultant for Walt Disney Pictures, but I had discovered the work of mythologist Joseph Campbell a few years earlier while studying cinema at the University of Southern California. I was sure I saw Campbell’s ideas being put to work in the first of the Star Wars movies and wrote a term paper for a class in which I attempted to identify the mythic patterns that made that film such a huge success. The research and writing for that paper inflamed my imagination and later, when I started working as a story analyst at Fox and other Hollywood studios, I showed the paper to a few colleagues, writers and executives to stimulate some discussion of Campbell’s ideas which I found to be of unlimited value for creating mass entertainment. I was certainly making profitable use of them, applying them to every script and novel I considered in my job.”

After that memo spread like wildfire throughout Disney and many other studios and agencies, Vogler was assigned to work in research and development at the Disney’s Feature Animation division for another masterpiece of the movie industry: The Lion King.

Now let’s check everything we covered so far in this plot:

  • The Hero with a Thousand Faces book by Joseph Campbell, which was influenced by Carl Jung’s studies in Psychology
  • The Star Wars movie saga, which was inspired by Campbell’s book
  • The Writer’s Journey book by Christopher Vogler (along with his original memo), which influenced and continue to influence studios and many screenwriters up to this day

In this very short list we have Psychology, Writing, Screenwriting, and Filmmaking, all connected through borrowed concepts from other areas that helped to improve their industries. And the story doesn’t even stop there.

Earlier this year, I decided to enhance my presentation skills, so I did some research on interesting materials on the topic, and amongst those items one in particular caught my attention: Resonate, the brilliant book by Nancy Duarte that my wife mentioned in a previous post. This book introduces a great framework to create compelling presentations that can seduce and capture audiences through the use of engaging stories. And what are some of the sources of inspiration mentioned by Duarte in this book? Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell and Christopher Vogler. :)

In the end, all different fields and industries are now more connected than ever, increasing the importance of having a Jack of All Trades in your team, with the ability to cross different fields, fostering ideas that can help bring innovation in your industry and give you that much needed extra edge that all companies are desperately in need these days.

About Leo:

Mix together a passion for learning, leadership, collaboration, search, knowledge sharing + a few other things and you will probably get Leo (Leonardo Souza) as a result. Used to enjoy the warm weather in Brazil, now he lives in snowy Boston with his wife and kids, working as a Technical Instructor at Microsoft, and practicing the art of parenting. You can find him at his technical blog on search (http://searchunleashed.wordpress.com), at his personal blog (http://opinioespessoais.blogspot.com), or at @leonardocsouza.

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  • http://personalcartography.com Tamsen McMahon (@tamadear)

    So I come down somewhere in middle of both of you on this I think, as my perspective is that we’re all a mix of both. 

    The person who looks like a Jack of all trades, subject-matter-wise, is often an expert in some skill that applies across the varied arenas. So, too, the person who is an expert in one particular subject often is a Jack of all trades skill-wise, able to draw on any number of different techniques, approaches, and processes to deepen his or her understanding of the topic at hand.Each of us, however, tends to see only our own bias (as with most things): the subject-matter-Jack looks for other subject-matter-Jacks (or Jills!) and misses that the person standing next to  him (ahem) is a skill-Jack, and may even scoff at that person’s lack of broad knowledge — just as the skill-Jack may criticize a subject-Jack for lack of focus. ;)

    But on any team (whether spouses or colleagues), it’s the combination of deep knowledge and broad knowledge, whether of skill or subject, that leads to success.

    • http://twitter.com/vargasl Lauren Vargas

      Tamsen, I agree with you. The argument of an expert is something I have carried with me for the past decade, but since managing a team and growing up (literally) in the ranks, I have to agree with you and fall in the middle.