There is an ongoing debate about whether it is better to be a specialist or a generalist in the marketplace. Some recruiters have provided a recommendation of playing it safe by positioning yourself as a “specialist, with breadth.” In a Forbes article they recommended being a specialist in your topic and desire, and being a generalist in your skills and approach.
When I teach project managers, assessors, consultants and masters students in sustainable project management and management consultancy, I always try to emphasize the importance of being “multi-disciplinary”, and developing their brand recognition for being a subject matter expert in a unique niche that has commercial value.
The importance of this, particularly in sustainable project management, is that being knowledgeable and competent in several different disciplines that go well together has become a cost of entry now. Combining ones skills in a unique way that is individual to you becomes far more useful than the sum of each skill separately. I read a post in Forge by Medium called “How to Become the Best in the World at Something,” written by Tomas Pueyo that provides a wonderful narrative around this, and which I borrowed significantly as the framework for this post.
How Much Work It Takes to Become the Best at One Skill
How many people will become President or Prime Minister of a country, the leading doctor or lawyer or accountant or engineer, or recognized for a season or career as the best hockey or football or soccer player, the best pianist or singer (country, blues, rock, new rock, old rock, indie etc.). Even for a short period of time becoming recognized as the world’s best at any unique skill or profession is the definition of unique.
Looking at these graphic examples, most people (in the lower blue zone) have very little of a specific skill.
A bit of work can quickly get you to the top 10% (the green zone).
But as you join the elite, it becomes harder and harder to move up, because you are facing competitors who are deeply committed to that skill, have unprecedented drive, have invested extraordinary time and resources to improve their competency and capacity, and / or have unusual advantages such as genetic gift(s) or luck that others do not have. So to become the world’s best swimmer, best singer, best runner, best pianist or best at whatever skill in the world is next to impossible.
The secret is in something defined by cartoonist Adam Scott, of Dilbert fame, known as skill stacking.
Combining Two or more Skills
The recommendation is to develop a variety of skills to an achievable level which combine to make someone a sought-after commodity. This is how he described his success and fame:
“Scott Adams explained that he is not a great artist, but rather, just average compared to other artists. He is a good writer, but not a great writer and has never taken a college level writing course. He can be somewhat funny, but a lot of people are much more funny. He is just alright at business, and definitely not an expert by any means. Thoughtfully combining this list of mediocre skills has allowed him to become a very successful cartoonist and writer writer with an estimated net worth of $75 million.” (Link, 2019)
Ideally, the skills would be unique, and also complementary. In the following example, each peak represents a unique skill. Getting to the top 10% (the green zone) of two skills requires much less work than becoming the best at a single one. As mentioned, it is important that these two curves don’t overlap much, meaning most people who are good at one skill are not good at the other.
In the example below, the two skills presented go hand in hand. In the example below, for the two skills presented most people who master one also master the other one. It’s therefore harder to stand out than if you had two skills that are unrelated.
“For example, if you’re in the top 1% in journalism, also being in the top 1% in writing skills isn’t going to be a big differentiator. Most top journalists are good writers. What’s different about stacking is having skills that not only work together but also are varied enough to make you stand out.” (Pueyo, 2019)
An Example for Organizing your Skills
I recognize that I am probably an unusual case, but for over 20 years my OCD has been focused on learning and professional certifications in those areas that made the most sense for the engagements I was on and where my career was going.
For example, when I was working on the largest ITIL V2 rollout in the 2000’s I got my ITIL V2 Manager and then the ITIL V3 Expert. As we were focusing on ITIL roll-outs I took what was the recognized (obviously biased) best project management methodology for this which was PRINCE2 (I had studied and used PRINCE at IBM in the late 90’s and loved it). Which then set me off on all of the APMG – UK Office of Government Commerce (OGC) methods. This trend continued for about a decade as I enjoyed the different structural differences and perspectives in the standards/methods/frameworks of the competing associations and organizations, and then the integration points between the disciplines also began to interest. This led me to the realization that sustainability is a brilliant catalyst for all of these disciplines and skills.
I was able to organize these skills into several tracks, which I could use for my personal skill stack. I chose my certifications and training as they provided evidence of knowledge, interest and in some cases competency which I could leverage along with the years of hands on experience and leadership in these disciplines.
Keys to a Good Skill Stack
As a general rule of thumb, there are some key qualities which professionals from all sectors would certainly benefit from developing and refining. These include:
- Strong written and verbal communication skills
- Solid emotional intelligence
- Sales experience
- Public speaking skills
- Programming skills
- Strong persuasive abilities
- Social media skills
If in doubt public speaking is always a good start, such as through Toastmasters or Dale Carnegie.
For sustainable project management, our skill stack is a little different. The good news is that we can continue to improve and develop our skill sets during the course of our daily activities. Take the IPMA ICB4 competency model as an example where we may want to consider focusing on specific skills:
For the GPM360° Registered Assessor and Consulting (RCA) program we focus on raising awareness and competency around sustainable project management with the following skills (as well as the assessor and consulting skills):
Combining Multiple Skills
The following combination of skills is uncommon and provides commercial value:
- Advanced experience, training, certifications, competency and leadership in Project, Programme and Portfolio Management (P3M) is unusual. Few have extensive skills in all three.
- Advanced sustainability experience, training and involvement is also not common combined with P3M.
- P3M with sustainability and extensive training, certifications, experience and leadership in risk management is unique.
- P3M, sustainability, risk and advanced business architecture training and certifications and experience is very unique.
- Add on advanced management consulting training, competency and recognition at the highest levels and this provides an exceptionally unique skill stack.
If we collapse the vertical axis and look at our skill stack from above, even if we are not in the yellow and red areas in any of these skills, not many people overlap in all of them. As well, we can continue to add more depending on the requirements of the situation. I for example could also focus on value and benefits management as well as business case specializations.
What we are doing here is taking a systems approach to building a platform that we can develop our unique brand and value propositions. We absolutely do not need to be the best in one area or skill set. For most this is a fools errand. A more sensible and reachable goal is to realize what niche you want to be recognized in where you stand out? What combination of skills and at what level do I need and that I can obtain to be unique in that niche? What you will hopefully discover that there are a number that you are already interested in, if not passionate about.
For sustainable project management, we do need to realize the need to be multi-disciplinary. One can remove the consulting and assessing elements below, but the rest are the basic cost of entry for sustainable project management. The question is what do you add on top of these to your skill stack?