In Praise of Polymaths: The Value of Cross-Functional People

Written by
Leigh Long, Head of Strategy

May 2, 2017

May 2, 2017 • Author: Leigh Long, Head of Strategy

It's easy to identify businesses where specialists are valued. But within the walls of the some of the finest agencies, it's the polymaths who are everywhere. And that's no accident.

Most people are familiar with the value of cross-functional teams, but cross-functional individuals are of particularly notable value.

McKinsey & Company deems these cross-functional types T-shaped people; Puttylike founder Emilie Wapnick uses the term multipotentialites; and celebrities with multiple areas of expertise are commonly called multi-hyphenates.

While the different terms have their nuances, they all get at the core idea of individuals with a mix of talents. And they're increasingly sought-after, particularly in industries like experience design.

After all, experience design is not about a single channel or a medium, where a specialist can ensure everything is done right. It's more of an ecosystem, where success hinges on two core factors:

  • The ability to put oneself in an audience's shoes -- or better yet, their psyches -- to craft an experience they might want or need.
  • The ability to deliver experiences that are aligned across touchpoints, ensuring that every interaction between brand and audience is deliberate, results-oriented and seamless.

Cross-functional individuals tend to be especially well suited for this kind of work. They're natural empaths, which affords them the vital ability to design for human-to-human connections. And they have an appreciation for the holistic nature of experience design, which requires the fluency to connect disparate disciplines.

Agencies that recruit these cross-functional individuals will find that their value is profound, provided the agencies do their part. It's not enough to hire people with a plurality of skill sets; you must encourage them to cross functions freely, breaking free of the confines of traditional org charts so they can apply their full talents.

The results speak for themselves.

  • Employee satisfaction: Employees who feel their full scope of expertise is being used tend to be fulfilled, driven employees. They work harder, stay longer and produce better.
  • Collaboration: Given their plurality of perspectives, breadth of experience, and over-indexing on empathy, cross-functional individuals are strong contributors to cross-functional teams.
  • Serendipity: "All of the magic is at the intersection of disciplines now," as IDEO's Tom Kelley put it. A graphic artist who thinks only about the principles of design, for example, may be a valuable specialist. But the cross-functional artist who also understands the strategy behind the design or how the design will ultimately be produced is more likely to generate client-serving kismet.
  • Agility: When success requires outmaneuvering the current, cross-functional employees are nimble enough to move the proverbial paddle. A strategist with a PR background is well positioned to seize an impromptu media opportunity. A producer with ancillary experience in graphic design can tweak a presentation mid-rehearsal. A production assistant-meets-data analyst can adjust an event's layout to optimize engagement.
  • Security: In the world of live events, surprises are expectations. And cross-functional individuals have a great enough competence across functions to step in and prevent missteps and mitigate crises.

With benefits like these, it's fair to expect that the trend of hiring hybrids and cultivating teams of cross-functional individuals will be a lasting one. When you find something that's good for employees, agencies and clients alike, it tends to stick around.

The article In Praise of Polymaths: The Value of Cross-Functional People first appeared on Advertising Age.