Tuesday, April 28, 2009

On Polymathy, Entrepreneurs, and Recession

Ok, Polymathy is a little strong, but I was looking for something with more impact than Dilletantism, a less corrupted connotation than Jack-Of-All-Trades, Multi-Talented usually implies a limited, if broad skill set, and I've recently seen Renaissance Man repurposed to describe those who engage in serial soft polygamy, so I'm stuck for a word. The idea I'm looking for is someone who performs at a level of professional competence or even excellence across multiple areas of expertise. The guy who can reliably fill any role in an organization. Some places they're called the 'go-to guy', but that again has connotations of connections rather than skills, and I'm really talking about someone who can do any task set in front of them, not someone who can find someone who can do that task.

For the sake of argument, let's assume when I use the word Polymath, I'm referring to a 'field expedient Polymath (f.e.p.)'. Someone who can by dint of vast experience, mental acumen, psychological flexibility, or whatever, pick up any task fast enough that people think they're already an expert at best, or 'relearning' something they've done before at worst. Someone who can speak intelligently on a wide range of topics; business, the sciences*, popular culture**, interpersonal relationships, and art of whatever stripe***.

Now, some people are immediately giong to disbelieve. That's fine. Not only are there the examples of the 'real' polymaths to counter that, there are likely enough examples than given reader knows one or has met one personally. Successful entrepreneurs often are, because they need either that or top notch networking skills in order to fill all the roles a starting business needs with the limited number of personnel available. What often happens is that the entrepreneur hires specialists in the core areas of the business, then steps up and fills all the empty roles until the business can afford to fill them with specialists. Most mid-sized and larger businesses have individuals with that same type of field-expedient polymathy; their the ones thrown wherever the fire is hottest. Small businesses tend not to get them, not because they don't want them, but because the individuals are uncommon. Not rare, really, more on the one in a hundred scale, and with one in the driver's seat running things, the odds are just that the business won't get another unless they're specifically selecting for them. If they are, they'll have different problems.

I recently was talking with a friend (who qualifies as a field-expedient polymath and an entrepreneur). He made the following observation: "The trouble with someone who is good at everything is that they have no clue what they should be doing." I really wish I could claim that line, but such is life.

If you're only good at one thing that you enjoy that pays the bills, you know what you're 'meant' to do. If in a professional sistuation there are ten things that need to be done, but you only have the skills to do one of them, you know which thing you ought to be doing. If the other nine jobs still need to be done, you may try after the one you're capable of, but there's no sense of personal failure if the job you can do is done. You're going above and beyond, if you reach for the stars and fail, you were still doing more than you really should have had to.

Now take our hypothetical f.e.p. If there are ten jobs that need to be done, odds are he can do between six and eight of them well enough to get the job done professionally. If it's a ten man job, odds are he has a few coworkers, hopefully nine, although there are times when he won't. The guy who can fill in any of the holes has to wait for the other nine to step up before he can fill the whole. The hesitation is often taken as laziness or lack of initiative, but it's actually a strategic choice. Were our f.e.p. to step into a role prematurely and fill a role one of the other employees is capable of, there is now an unfulfilled role and an excess employee.

All of that is pretty straightforward. Most of you playing at home can see the best use for someone like that; keep them on the bench until you have a job no one else can do, then throw them in the gap until you can get someone new. When you do, return them to the bench until the next gap appears.

Now, the failure modes, and I've seen a few.

The first failure mode is a growth failure. When a business is growing, having one or more f.e.p.s is a must; eventually you need more than just the owner / entrepreneur. However, companies often try to keep costs as low as possible, and the failure mode occurs when leadership fails to replace the f.e.p. with a speicalist once the need is identified. Instead, more and more hats are stacked atop one another until the f.e.p. fails due to overload. In our hypothetical ten role situation above, instead of having nine specialists and one guy to fill in the blanks, the company sees an individual who can perform six of the roles and repurposes five of the other people. One person, if pushed to complete six persons worth of work, is eventually going to fail, and not just in the 'fail to cmplete the task' way. Since the failure is usually a component failure, rather than a task failure, and that component was tied to several key tasks, the results are often widespread and fairly serious.

The second mode, which is related, is a failure mode that happens frequently during Recessions. When companies cut back, they frequently do the 'everyone justify their existence' thing. Ironically, the f.e.p. is often caught out. There are two common reasons. The first is excessive cycling roles, which causes the 'by the time I communicate this back to you, two of these four items will be out of date and three more will have been added' situation. When the evaluator sees the justification, he sees a person not fully justified, despite being over one hundred percent workload. the second is excessive small roles, which causes the 'None of these are justification' response. When the evaluator sees the long list, by the time he hits the bottom of the first page his eyes have glazed over, but nothing has jumped out at him, so the f.e.p. is marked as unjustified. Note that in both cases, the f.e.p. is likely holding down multiple mission-critical roles; that's what they do. However, it's often a case of 'none of these files in the windows folder look important, I'll delete them to save space'. By the time anyone realizes what happened, an implosion is usually well under way.

The final failure mode is actually what I mentioned above, the company comprised of nothing but f.e.p.s. It sounds great; anyone can do anything! However, think about the 'who does what' scenario. Instead of everyone grabbing a chore, each of them is waiting for the list to narrow to what everyone else can do. In addition, the company often has no 'core competency', nothing they're better at than everyone else. That's not quite correct; they're often quite good at things that require massive flexibility and broad skillsets in very little time, like innovation and crisis resolution, since in the first they can fit pieces together in ways others woudn't think of, and in the second, assuming they have at least one person who can manage the crisis that person can throw anyone anywhere at any time for the duration.

Ok, it's late, I'm rambling a bit. Short version, for those following along: there are folks in any business that do whatever the business needs. Every business needs some, too large a percentage can actually be a problem. They can't do everything all at once or they'll implode, and if you have one, it's a bad idea to get rid of them because they don't do any single 'critical' thing.

*Gaps in scientific knowledge are ok as long as areas of knowledge appear to outnumber gaps.
**Same here, only applied to details of pop culture.
***Ditto, although applied to areas of art.

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