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The Polymathic Product Designer – UX Planet

The Polymathic Product Designer - UX Planet


Polymaths — Evolving into ‘Homo universalis’

I must admit I do share this fear however, it’s a fear that we should welcome. The challenges and problems we have to face in the tech industry can be incredibly complex. This complexity requires exceptionally versatile individuals. They require those that possess the ability to apply knowledge across disciplines, the ability to see from different perspectives. Some describe these individuals as ‘T-shaped’ people which is a term popularised by Tim Brown, the CEO of the “innovation and design” firm IDEO. You could also call them the modern day ‘Polymath’.

The product teams that are better problem solvers and better product creators, are the ones that consist of team members that are less linear thinking. For me, I’ve been lucky to have worked with very talented teams where developers can design, designers that can develop, product managers, product owners, scrum masters and BAs are technically fluent. Teams that work best are the ones, regardless of your role, everyone gets their hands dirty to help build the product. When team members have an understanding of the value of each other’s skillset, it removes that ‘us versus them’ mentality and it builds a strong comradeship.

We need to become more like polymaths to be better equipped to tackle these complex problems. We have a to evolve into ‘Homo universalis’. ‘Homo universalis’ translates from latin into ‘universal person’ which is what the term polymath was derived from. The approach to work requires less linear thinking and more of a polymathic approach, a multi-dimensional way of thinking.

Why do we think more linearly?

Where did this way of thinking originate? Linear thinking could be attributed to reasons such as our educational system. We are asked to pick a side, the arts or the sciences. It could be attributed to culture in general. In the past where certain societies were limited to human association and communication to a smaller scale, this perhaps limited the acquisition of knowledge and exposure to differing perspectives. For example, in the past for Forager hunter societies, communication extended only to local tribe and blood ties. The great Hydraulic Agricultural civilisations, these civilisations mostly associated with one’s blood ties and religious ties. Perhaps, back then when our world view was smaller, our way of thinking was narrower.

Another reason for this linear way of thinking, well at least in Western history, could be due to the Industrial Revolution. Industrial capitalism brought with it a certain organisational framework which was largely based on the division of labour. That division of labour segregated different fields and different disciplines. In doing so, this limited what an individual could potentially do. This has led to the majority of the workforce trained to be hyper-specialised in a specific field and therefore is siloed to this narrow way of thinking and skill development.

Being a modern polymath is the new normal

Many modern organisations are hiring modern polymaths. They are recognising that this industrial framework is outdated and are evolving into ‘Responsive organisations’. A friend introduced me to ‘Responsive Org’ and their manifesto is what speaks to me.

The Responsive Organization is built to learn and respond rapidly by optimising for the open flow of information; encouraging experimentation and learning on rapid cycles; and organising as a network of employees, customers, and partners motivated by shared purpose.

A responsive organisation values:

  • Purpose over profit
  • Networks over hierarchies
  • Empowering over controlling
  • Experimentation over planning
  • Transparency over privacy

More modern organisations are possessing these values. These values are what encourages more multi-dimensional thinking and what is needed for our ever changing and unpredictable world.

Today’s world is more complex than it’s ever been and so are the problems that this diverse, connected world creates. It’s never been more important for people to be able to connect the dots between different subjects to come up with creative solutions that account for so many variables. So maybe the future of work is about becoming a polymath.

How do we become polymaths?

Polymaths are connected through four traits which include curiosity, seeing the world through curious eyes and being more curious about a wide range of topics. The second trait is focusing on a problem rather than on disciplines so that they can understand what aspects of the world will be needed to derive a creative outcome. The third trait is perseverance, persevere through the tough times and embracing the willingness to fail as an opportunity to grow. The fourth trait is to monitor and measure progress, developing a feedback loop to continually update their knowledge.

  • Curiosity
  • Focus on a problem
  • Perseverance
  • Monitor and measure

There’s no certificate or ceremony in becoming a polymath, it’s simply about learning to think critically and seeing the world through curious eyes. Perhaps we as humans were always destined to become one and we are polymathic in nature. I believe human beings are multifaceted and each one of us has the potential to become a polymath.



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