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In Praise of Polymaths & The Shape of Thinking


I have always been intrigued by the qualities and impact of deep subject matter expertise and generalist skills and knowledge. They both ahve their place and each can help or hinder in different contexts.

There is much debate on the value of T-Shaped, V-Shaped and even U-Shaped individuals and teams.

Not physically, you understand, but the shape of their thinking and expertise!

I am fascinated by the work of Jeroen Kraaijenbrink, Adjunct Associate Professor at University of Amsterdam Business School, on this topic which I commented on here . . .

When building teams, we prize blended skills and diverse thinking.

The Specialist has deep knowledge in one area needed to do one’s own work and perform tasks effectively.

The Generalist has broad knowledge about a range of other areas required to provide context to collaborate and communicate with others.

The Polymath has deep knowledge spanning a substantial number of subjects, known to draw on complex bodies of knowledge to solve specific problems.  

An article in Management Today by Paul Simpson, brought this topic back to the top of my swirling cranial soup . . .

He writes about Donald Maclean (not the notorious one!), who tried to buy Apple in the early days.

Donald Maclean was a polymath, an uncommon trait which may not be trendy.

But the article argues that the business world is littered with executives so narrowly focused and narcissistic they completely fail to see the bigger picture, with many notorious examples.

There is a compelling argument that we need more polymaths like Maclean in business, not less.

There are some interesting lessons for developing your inner polymath;

  • Look forward and avoid preoccupation with the past.
  • Think laterally – life rarely follows a straight line.
  • Network in and beyond your organisation – it creates serendipity and opportunity.
  • Pursue your passion – nurture your curiosity.

You can read Paul’s article in Management Today “In praise of polymaths” here . . .

It is a brief read, and worth the time if you are looking for future talent and developing teams.

Thanks for reading . .  .