In an era when traditional organisational divides are increasingly redundant, I see that we have need for a new type of worker- the comb-shaped worker. Now for full disclosure this might be nothing but a personal work-generation programme because I see myself as comb-shaped, but let me explain…

There are two concepts I’ve been seeing bandied around recently: the T-shaped worker and the double-deep worker (I’m intentionally avoiding the word employee here because inferring employment status isn’t important). The T-shaped worker has professional skills deep into one area, but has a broad business appreciation across the world of business. The double-deep employee is usually used in reference to someone who has a professional area of expertise and also depth in technology understanding.

But I don’t believe a smattering of awareness, or knowing some technology as well as your day job, is enough any more. To allow the multidisciplinary teams that are necessary for innovation to happen in our organisations, we need more than people who have knowledge and experience “to just get by” across multiple disciplines, or who are a bit geeky. Comb-shaped – generalists who have more than just passing knowledge across a number of areas – are a necessity.

Why? Well, it strikes me that us comb-shaped folk serve a few purposes:

Adaptation across disciplines

I quite often meet people (particularly in IT) who describe their role as being one of a translator across an organisation, acting as a buffer between technologists and normal people. I used to describe myself in this way, particularly when I was a Business Relationship Manager. But in recent years I’ve realised that translation is not enough – you need to adapt things in a similar way that a screenwriter adapts a novel or stage play to make a film script. Comb-shaped workers can perform that role in a way that T-shaped can’t, or that double-deep can only manage into one discipline.

Joining dots

I’m a big believer in the power of the outsider – how someone from outside of a situation can spot things that someone embroiled within cannot. That’s why people hire consultants. But it’s an inhibitor to innovation within an organisation. By being comb-shaped, keeping visibility in some depth across multiple disciplines, one is able to maintain a sense of perpetual naiveté that an outside can have. Constantly switching domains is hard work, but it keeps one with fresh eyes.

Coordinating specialists

The necessity for multi-disciplinary teams in organisation to unlock knotty challenges is increasing. Comb-shaped people can act as the lubricant necessary for those diverse folk to get along. They can also act as a multi-profession bullshit detector.

Challenging accepted wisdom

Professional specialism is great. But it also leads to conservatism of thought because, by definition, professional specialism leads to accepted wisdom and accepted wisdom is “the way we do things around here”. Comb-shaped people are better equipped to lead discussions that challenge those assumptions.

But comb-shaped workers don’t seem to thrive in organisations. My own experience is that most of the comb-shaped people work in similar patterns to me, on the outskirts, part of the gig-economy. Maybe that suits us, but there is an irony that I’m now being paid good money to say the things that whilst in employment I was usually told to keep quiet about.

If I think about how my own career has developed, there have been a number of decisions that I have taken, and then just stuff that has happened, that’s given me this broad outlook.

First of all, my Dad is comb-shaped (the genetics in the family also mean at 70-something he’s also still able to use a comb, which he frequently delights in doing in my baldy presence). He started his career in electronic engineering and broadcasting, retrained as a psychologist, and then also developed deep interest in computer science. My mum, on the other hand, worked in the production side of TV and radio which gave me a fascination with the world of media. We all eventually become our parents.

At 16 I wanted to go off and do a degree in music production. As a result I chose a mixture of pure art (music), pure science (Physics) and maths at A-Level. But because I’m easily bored I also did a social science (politics) as a fourth subject. At 19, having by then discovered that I probably didn’t have the spark of natural aptitude to be in the professional music game, I went down the social sciences route at degree level, majoring in sociology but with a minor in computer science. I chose the latter partly because I had had an interest for many years, and partly because I knew that with a nice logical subject like computing I could bump up my overall marks in comparison to a much less structured and more subjective subject in Sociology.

In comparison, most kids by 16 have either settled on an arts and humanities or science path for education. I’m strongly of the opinion that we stream those educational choices far too early.

In my career since graduating I’ve then taken two sideways steps – ten years ago to spend two years working for a leadership and management training and development firm, and more recently to work in a marketing role within Microsoft. That’s enabled me to get depth into those areas of interest in my professional life. It’s also meant that now my CV is something by which most recruiters are left completely confused. For me there is a clear narrative – people, communication and technology is what I “do”, and I need a wealth of technical, professional and domain knowledge to be able to do that effectively.

Now I’m quite happy to put my hands up and say that maybe this is me suffering from being a Jack of all trades, labouring under the misapprehension that I’m some sort of polymath. That comb-shaped is a massive reverse engineering to justify my inability to sustain a big corp career. I’m also quite willing to admit that I frequently suffer imposter syndrome, and that last sentence is it in play!

But allowing people to develop multiple specialisms seems to me to not only be important, but also is something that we mitigate against by the way in which we organise, recruit, train, educate in organisations and in our broader society. As a result, what can we do to allow people to experience new areas of organisation, to embrace the idea of recruiting non-specialists, to foster an ongoing learning that values breadth as much as depth?

6 thoughts on “Comb-shaped

  1. Great observations, I’d like to add a few more.
    1) creativity often happens at the intersection of different disciplines so spanning several makes creative thought more likely
    2) depth is possibly becoming less important as knowledge becomes more widely available and accessible and data discovery, analysis and decision support tools get more sophisticated
    3) you could also be described as a shape-shifter. This is a great ability to have but is maladaptive for corporate hierarchies and career progression paths!

    I think the requirements of the future are to be able to move across disciplines and go as deep as you need as quickly as possible, synthesising knowledge to create new possibilities. Our current education system is pushing people in completely the opposite direction.

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