In the past, workplaces were filled with experts who each knew a lot about one specific area. The changing scope of businesses, with more fluidity between roles and responsibilities, later led to the rise of generalists — individuals who are capable across a lot of areas but do not need in-depth knowledge of any of them.
However, in a world driven by rapid changes in technology and industry best practice, being a generalist is no longer enough. To support the fast-moving targets of global businesses, a different profile now prevails: the versatilist.
The shape of our skills
The way we work is impacted by our talent archetype. The framework was devised by Gartner analyst Diane Morello. Morello stated that simply having technical aptitude was no longer sufficient to meet industry needs. Each archetype can be described in terms of the “shape” of its corresponding skills.
Specialists, or “I-shaped” people, are experts at one thing. They may have deep technical skills in a certain field, or only work within a very narrow domain of work. They are considered to be experts in their field by their peers, but their value is often not understood by those working in different areas.
On the other hand, generalists — or “hyphen-shaped” people — are capable in many different areas, but do not have expertise in any of them. The phrase “Jack of all trades, but master of none” is a popular way to describe a generalist.
As a result of their broad knowledge base, generalists can respond quickly to different situations. However, their competency and confidence are likely to be much lower than that of someone who has deep knowledge in an area relevant to the business.
This is where versatilists come in. Also called “T-shaped” people, versatilists are capable in lots of areas, and can become experts in specific fields according to the business needs. Rather than settling in one area and becoming a specialist, they are comfortable exploring any new domain that demands their attention.
With the fast pace of technological change, versatilists tend to be popular hires as well as successful founders, as they can more easily recognize new opportunities and make the required changes to quickly adapt to new technology.
In fact, Shabnam Hamdi and colleagues argued in 2016 that when technology uncertainty is greater, having individuals with T-shaped skills is beneficial.
Two years later, Haluk Demirkan and James Spohrer found that T-shaped digital professionals tend to combine critical thinking and in depth problem-solving with a “breadth of knowledge, skills, experience, and complex communication abilities.” They concluded that this combination of skills is crucial to build high-performance teams.
The rise of the versatilist
For fast-moving companies and startups alike, the versatilist has replaced the generalist as the ideal profile. By their very nature, versatilists are adaptable, and have an ability to take relevant information on board while developing and honing new skills.
The career equivalent of a serial monogamist, the versatilist throws themselves whole-heartedly into a project or area to develop deep knowledge and competence. By becoming fully immersed in one field at a time, they develop a broad range of experience as well as multiple deep skills.
Being adept at spotting new trends, they are ready to move to the next priority area as required. Being consecutively embedded in specific areas gives the versatilist an excellent foundation for multidisciplinary collaboration.
Because of their wide-ranging experience, the versatilist also has greater insight than a specialist would have regarding the role they should take in a specific project. Their insight supports cross-organizational vision across people, processes, and products.
How to become a versatilist
Businesses thrive on adaptability and innovation. Being a versatilist involves anticipating what you need to learn to meet these demands. To do this, it’s important to cultivate a versatile mindset by consuming content across different disciplines.
It’s also vital to practice lifelong learning by keeping up with trends in your industry. The versatilist is adept at anticipating what the next wave will be and upskilling themselves accordingly.
Often, you will need to be prepared to study intensely and to quickly develop new skills to be ready to work on the next business initiative without delay. For instance, many versatilists are currently busy studying tools for generative AI so they can use them in their business.
If you currently work as a specialist, it can be daunting to exit your comfort zone to deeply immerse yourself in unfamiliar territory. Taking time to practice metacognition is vital for reflecting on the best areas to invest your time and energy in. In addition, developing a deeper understanding of your thought processes will help you expand the versatility of your skill set in areas that are likely to be beneficial to your personal and professional growth.
Being capable in a variety of areas, able to spot future trends and adept at quickly upskilling to meet changing business are some of the benefits of the versatilist archetype. A versatile mindset can be cultivated by consuming information widely and practicing metacognition to quickly respond to fast-changing business needs.