Something’s afoot in the future of work, but it’s hush-hush. People don’t like talking about it.
"I know it is ugly to say ‘unicorn,’ but yeah, you kinda do have to be the unicorn," Chris Noessel, head of design for IBM’s transportation group, tells me. Before joining the tech giant, Mr. Noessel spent a decade at the design and strategy firm Cooper.
His former boss, Alan Cooper, who invented (and later sold to Microsoft) the core design for Visual Basic, is even more cautious around the subject. "I think we in the design profession do ourselves and our colleagues a disservice by even recognizing the argument that ‘unicorns’ exist."
Noessel and Cooper aren't talking about tech unicorns—startups valued at over $1 billion—they're talking about people. I asked them both about the type of person whose professional expertise is both deep and wide in multiple subject areas, and whether such a worker's already high value has risen in recent years. Cooper seems to reject the notion of such a person outright; Noessel doesn't but is uncomfortable with the notion of a "unicorn" worker in his field—somebody with vast experience in business, technology, and design. Yet both men are clearly more than a little polymathic themselves.
I've written before for Fast Company about the role of these "comprehensivists" in the knowledge economy, and how some are leaving corporate jobs to take on high-paid freelance work. Plenty of companies are more than happy to pay one such "unicorn" worker a lucrative rate to do the work of what would otherwise be a two- or three-person team.
But they may be less willing to talk about it. After all, the notion of a well-rounded comprehensivist working solo flies in the face of a work ethos that's been resolute about the need for collaboration for a generation or more.
Knowledge workers with competencies in multiple disciplines threaten the culture of collaboration that's ruled the working world for decades. As the Economist recently put it, "In modern business, collaboration is next to godliness." So comprehensivists’ tendency toward whole-brain thinking, straddling art and science, introversion and extroversion, the tactical and the strategic may strike some as a puzzling departure. It conflicts with the notion of company life imagined by our Industrial Age forebears of the 1890s as well as the collaboration gurus of the 1990s.
Indeed, fin-de-siècle factories and modern-day workplaces aren’t too dissimilar. Both were designed explicitly for teams of specialists. The polymath had no place. In the world of work, an interest in (and/or aptitude for) self-reliance has been out of vogue for quite some time. As author Susan Cain once put it in the New York Times, "Collaboration is in."
That was in 2012, and what was "in" then may not exactly be "out," but it's showing signs of wear. A growing body of academic research and the popular press have begun to point toward collaboration’s costs and limits. In one study last year, high-performing individuals were shown to carry their teams—managers actually got higher returns by investing in their top employees than by trying to motivate and support everyone equally.
Meanwhile, collaboration doesn't seem to have solved our intractable productivity needs, risks of burnout, and communication breakdowns. Even the technologies designed to make collaborating easier and more seamless are coming under fire by some users who claim they do nothing but add to the noise.
Has the progress that collaboration promised finally stalled?
In many ways, comprehensivism is a direct reaction to the ever-increasing burden and diminishing returns of collaborating. Gradually, and perhaps even unintentionally, individual workers amass whatever skills they need to accomplish their goals independently, at a pace and style satisfactory to them, with no sales pitching, arguing, pleading, cajoling, or meeting in sight. In this sense, comprehensivism is a necessary workaround in an overly collaborative environment.
As Noessel tells it, having a rich and varied quiver to draw from is priceless. "I knew this one guy in grad school who got terrible advice from a Stanford professor who told him, ‘Don't worry about learning graphics software. Don't worry about technology. There will always be minions who can do that for you.’ So this guy was always dependent on others who could realize his vision," Noessel recalls. "He became a manager by default. He had to be in a terrible feedback loop all the time."
This is a problem for organizations that have invested heavily in the idea of collaborative work for decades—everything from continuing-education programs and communication cultures right down to the physical design of spaces. Real dollars are involved in getting people to work together—even when they'd be more productive flying solo. Chalk it up to the "sunk-cost" fallacy, but it seems now as if there's no going back. By now, it’s become important to the world of work (read: balance sheets) that collaboration continues to "work." Otherwise, what good are all those training modules, messaging platforms, and collaboration cabins?
But when it comes to collaborating, what if our proclivity to overdo it were the least of our problems? According to research by MIT’s Mark Klein and colleagues, collaboration may be a creativity killer.
They've found that a collaborative design process—where a bunch of specialists put their heads together to try to come up with innovation solutions—generally "reduced creativity due to the tendency to incrementally modify known successful designs rather than explore radically different and potentially superior ones."
That’s funny. Because collaboration has been billing itself as the font of workplace creativity for decades. What if the opposite were true? Incidentally, groupthink is also characterized by a loss of individual creativity. It may be that collaboration and groupthink are two sides of the same coin—kissing cousins at least—and we’ve collectively chosen (thank you, groupthink) to see only one side of that coin for years.
While comprehensivists are likely a reaction to the creeping curse of collaboration, it doesn’t mean they yearn for total solitude and self-reliance; certainly, asking everybody to be good at everything and do it by themselves is no solution. You can't just employ only multidisciplinary "unicorns" and fire the rest of your staff. The answer more likely lies somewhere in the middle—and it starts not only with knowing when not to collaborate but also when to resist the urge to go solo.
"I have for years been relying on myself for everything. I can deliver a one-man team on a lot of stuff," says Joe Brown, multidisciplinary designer at IDEO (where, in full disclosure, we once worked together). "The biggest challenge for my career has been to not do that."
Brown points out that at some point, projects become too large to manage without the use of teams. When he worked onsite in Berlin for a year with European e-commerce client Zalando, he directed a studio that had five teams running simultaneously. "That just means there is no way I can do everything."
As you begin to work more with creative teams, "the more you do, the less they learn and develop," says Brown. It becomes less about solo performances and more about helping others grow, which requires stepping back.
At Zalando, Brown says, instead of actually doing everything, he was able to assist with anything. There’s a subtle shift there for the comprehensivist. Varied and valuable skills are present in either case, but their application changes completely. "Being able to jam with one team for a short, intense period of time is really great, because it fills whatever gap the team has at the moment, which may be more quantitative or may be more visual-oriented. That's been a real joy."
For all of its drawbacks, collaborative work isn't going away anytime soon—and that's probably a good thing. To be sure, even the most dedicated comprehensivists don’t aim to shortcut teamwork wholesale. They simply want to right-size it, as any sane person on the brink of burnout might.
In fact, all workers are likely on a trajectory toward some version of comprehensivism, perhaps even unwittingly. As Doreen Lorenzo, director of integrated design at the University of Texas at Austin recently wrote, "In the future, all designers will be hybrids." The same is likely true in a variety of industries.
Why can’t the mid-career architect also also pinch-hit on acoustic and lighting design occasionally? Why can’t the financial analyst also tackle accounting-journal entries from time to time? Why can’t the supply-chain manager also oversee a production run or two? No reason per se. Small businesses and startups embrace hybrid workers out of sheer necessity. Medium- and large-sized businesses could take a cue.
"In anyone's career, anyone's growth, if you only exercise one set of skills, then you're only going to be a partial contributor to what you're doing," says Brown. "You may become incredibly good and gain expertise in your field, but you'll always have a hard time connecting to the people you work with. If the future of work is highly collaborative, then there will be value in being able to plug into others." We'll need to know how to do one another's jobs—or at least parts of them—in order to do that.
Then perhaps through this cycle of hybrid-skills acquisition, collaboration can dial itself down a little, letting workers everywhere regain the time and headspace to do their best, most creative work all on their own. Wouldn’t that be a dream? Seems almost unreal—like, say, unicorns.
Lisa Baird is a former principal designer at IDEO. She recently earned her master of design at California College of the Arts and previously earned her MBA at University of California Berkeley. Follow her on Twitter at @bairdlisa