Updated: August 28, 2023 - 11 min read
In our hyper-connected field of product management, the ability to draw connections across various domains, aka being a polymath, can be a game-changer. But, are you familiar with the term polymathism? Do you know what a polymathic Product Manager is? If you don’t, worry not! In this post, we are going to talk about all things polymathic!
Editorial note: This post is based on a talk by Penny Szeto, Amazon Head of Product, on Polymathic Product Managers and contains additional insights and examples from the Product School team. You can watch the webinar in full above.
Whether you're keen to enhance your current strategies or seek innovative ways to approach challenges, this exploration into polymathism will offer a fresh perspective. By the end of this post, you'll have a clear understanding of what it means to be a polymath and why it's advantageous for PMs to incorporate this multidimensional approach into their professional toolkit.
Contextualizing polymaths: The specialist vs. generalist debate
For those new to the term, at its heart, a polymath is someone with a breadth of knowledge spanning various fields. To truly grasp the essence of polymaths, it's key to first understand the difference between generalists and specialists.
Specialists immerse themselves in a specific field, dedicating years, even decades, to mastering its intricacies. Think of neurosurgeons, who have an in-depth understanding of the human brain, or data scientists who unravel complex datasets. They operate within a confined domain but wield an unmatched depth of expertise.
Generalists dabble in multiple domains, gaining a little bit of knowledge here and there. While they may not have the deep expertise of specialists, they make up for it with their broad perspective. They are the project managers who juggle different tasks, the management consultants who provide solutions across industries, or the HR managers who deal with varied human behaviors.
Historically, the pendulum has swung between the value of specialists and generalists. Yet, today, we’ve moved beyond this binary debate to focus on a third path, an enticing blend of both worlds: the world of polymaths. As Product Managers, understanding and possibly embracing this path could redefine your approach to products, users, and the market at large.
Positioned elegantly between specialists and generalists, polymaths weave the intricacies of both worlds seamlessly. Picture them as individuals boasting mastery in at least three distinct areas. Yes, they harness depth akin to specialists, but they also exhibit a breadth of knowledge that's truly remarkable.
Polymaths' key traits
Understanding what makes a polymath tick is intriguing. Let's delve into the unique attributes setting them apart.
1. World’s view: An open and growth mindset
Polymaths view the world with a lens that's both open and oriented towards growth. Their strength lies in first principle thinking, an ability to strip down complex issues into their fundamental truths. They are able to create original solutions by dissecting a problem and applying these fundamental building components.
2. Broad curiosity: Thirst for knowledge
Not just content with understanding one domain, polymaths possess an unquenchable thirst to explore multiple terrains. Their curiosity isn't restricted to neighboring fields; it spans a diverse range, always hungry for more.
3. Mastery: Reflect & feedback
Depth is their ally. When intrigued, a polymath dives deep, scrutinizing details, reflecting, and iterating. Their journey towards mastery isn't just superficial; it's anchored in understanding and expertise.
4. Integrative: See patterns & synthesize disciplines
A hallmark of polymaths is their knack for connecting the dots. They have an uncanny ability to identify patterns across varied disciplines, weaving them together in unexpected and insightful ways.
5. Drive: Self-reliance, perseverance & adaptability
Behind every polymath is a formidable drive. A commitment to self-learning, an undeterred spirit in the face of setbacks, and a nimble adaptability that allows them to thrive in ever-changing scenarios.
Time to indulge in some history and take a closer look at legendary polymaths who've graced our world.
Leonardo Da Vinci, often the first name to emerge when discussing polymaths, was not only a master artist but a pioneer in science, engineering, and architecture, with his notebooks depicting grand visions of flying machines and intricate understandings of human anatomy.
Equally illustrious, Benjamin Franklin, one of America's founding fathers, donned many roles, from statesman and philosopher to scientist, leaving behind a legacy that includes the drafting of the Constitution and innovations like the bifocal glasses.
In a more modern context, Oscar-winning actress Natalie Portman showcases her range beyond cinema. A Harvard graduate, she's a polyglot, accomplished dancer, director, and fervent activist for various societal issues.
Then there's Elon Musk, a name synonymous with cutting-edge innovation. His background in physics, economics, and early programming pursuits laid the groundwork for revolutionary ventures, whether it's in online finance, space travel, or sustainable energy.
Why spotlight these polymaths? Not to create an unattainable pedestal, but to underline a crucial point: Polymathy isn't about superhuman brilliance. It's about unbridled curiosity and the drive to master varied disciplines. Each of these icons channeled their diverse talents into multiple avenues, proving that one's purpose can manifest in various ways.
Why should PMs strive to be polymathic?
Venturing into this topic, it's essential to outline why being a polymath might be beneficial for someone in the product management arena.
The evolution of product management provides a historical backdrop for our conversation. When you trace the arc of its development, it becomes evident how intertwined polymathic tendencies are with the PM role.
Originally, product management emerged as a way to address a market need for a comprehensive, cross-functional approach to product evolution. Picture this: a PM isn't just the advocate for the product but also its custodian. This requires a blend of profound business acumen, intricate technical know-how, and a deep-rooted empathy for users.
But before we all pat ourselves on the back and claim the title of a polymath, let's take a step back. Merely being a PM doesn't grant the polymath badge. While PMs are primed for adopting a polymathic approach, truly embodying it means exhibiting the traits and breadth of knowledge discussed previously.
Some trends have, over time, eroded the innate polymathic essence in PMs:
Academization & Generalization: Standardizing PM roles has its merits but also pitfalls. The rise of certifications and boot camps has broadened access but sometimes leads individuals to focus solely on surface-level skills, like Agile, neglecting the role's deeper nuances.
Hyper-specialization: Today, there's a trend towards hyper-specializing PM roles, leading to a variety of niche titles, as seen in companies like Amazon. While this sharpens expertise, it can also limit overall knowledge and reduce holistic curiosity.
Focus on advancement vs. learning: As the PM role solidifies, many prioritize career progression over broad learning. PMs often choose roles for title advancements instead of growth opportunities, influenced by defined career paths or industry trends. This highlights a trade-off between fostering curiosity and chasing career milestones.
Benefits of polymathism
Let's journey through the advantages of harnessing this multidisciplinary approach. Understanding and embracing the diverse skills of a polymath, you not only counteract the limitations of over-specialization but also amplify your potential as a product leader. So, what are these compelling benefits of being a polymath?
1. Helps solve wicked problems
In product management, "wicked problems" are complex issues that defy standard solutions. Unlike "tame" problems, which are straightforward and have clear answers, wicked problems are layered with uncertainties and need multifaceted solutions.
For instance, creating a healthcare system, addressing income inequality, or promoting peace in unstable regions are wicked problems. They demand diverse knowledge and collaboration. Polymathic Product Managers are best suited for these.
Consider three examples:
Water Crisis: Around 771 million people don't have clean water access. Mikkell Vestergaard Frandsen, an entrepreneur with varied experience, created LifeStraw, a portable filter that makes natural water safe to drink. This device provided clean water to over 3.3 million people last year.
Payment Acceptance: Small businesses often struggle with accepting payments due to high costs and regulations. Jack Dorsey, Twitter's founder, introduced Square, an app-based system enabling easy card payments through phones. Now, over 2 million businesses use Square, showcasing the potential of a polymath in uncharted territories.
Duolingo: Learning languages can be costly and inaccessible. Louis Von Ahn, known for Captcha, blended his love for language and tech skills to create Duolingo. This free app offers gamified lessons in over 40 languages, making it the most downloaded educational app today.
The stories above highlight that polymathic expertise is essential to address global challenges.
2. Helps with future-proofing
Imagine a world where AI delves deep into myriad subjects, acquiring profound knowledge but lacking the finesse to interconnect these domains. That's where you, as a polymathic product manager, come into play. As the market evolves, the once distinct boundaries begin to blur, converging at points of intersection. It's at these junctions where growth opportunities burgeon, and where you, armed with your cross-disciplinary insights, can seize the day and make an impact.
Furthermore, a defining characteristic of polymathism is resilience. Consider the unpredictability of economic climates and the subsequent layoffs. Isn't it heartening to note that those polymathic Product managers when faced with adversity, took it as an opportunity? They utilized their downtime, honing new skills, pivoting, and finding ways to reconnect with their core strengths in entirely new arenas. This adaptability, this agility in approach, is indicative of how instrumental polymathism can be in future-proofing one's career trajectory.
3. Helps with success
Polymathism's link to success is supported by research, not just anecdotes. Activities like music, art, or chess can predict career achievements better than grades or IQ. Notably, Nobel winners tend to have broader interests than other scientists.
While one could assume innate talent is the reason, it's vital to understand the hard work and dedication involved in mastering varied disciplines. Thus, the real focus should be on fostering polymathism for success in product management.
As product managers, we constantly navigate complexity and integration. Considering the advantages of being a polymath, how can we encourage this diverse learning approach? Explore this guide for strategies to cultivate polymathism to become a polymathic product manager yourself.
The 80/20 rule
Introduce yourself to the principle of the 80/20 rule. At its core, this rule postulates that 80% of outputs derive from 20% of inputs. This uneven distribution can be witnessed in realms like business, where a chunk of profits is generated by a subset of customers. But when this rule is dissected further, Jake Chapman's take adds a novel perspective.
Chapman posits that if we keep dividing these percentages, the results become increasingly skewed. This theory, when applied to learning, suggests that achieving mastery in one domain demands a significant time investment. However, by diversifying our focus, we can attain proficiency in multiple domains with a more balanced investment of time.
Polymathic learning model
Polymathism is driven by an insatiable curiosity. To structure this expansive learning journey, consider breaking it into three pivotal stages, each with its distinctive set of questions and activities.
1. Go broad
Commence with a holistic view, delving into foundational concepts. This phase emphasizes understanding the basics and clarifying misconceptions. It's paramount to lean on expert-generated content during this stage, such as textbooks or introductory courses.
2. Dive deep
Once you've established a foundational understanding, delve deeper into specific modules or facets of your chosen subject. This phase encourages a cyclical pattern of deep dives and resurfaces. Your queries now take on a more intricate nature, pushing you to explore both expert and user-generated content. Engaging in peer discussions or intellectual debates can be instrumental in solidifying your comprehension.
In this phase, the aim is to amalgamate the newly acquired knowledge with existing expertise. Your focus shifts from acquiring to associating, finding connections between diverse domains, and even producing original insights.
Remember, while accumulating knowledge is commendable, its true potency is unveiled only when applied. As you embark on your polymathic journey, ensure that application walks hand in hand with acquisition.
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Updated: August 28, 2023