Skills aren't what is valuable

Posted on February 16, 2016

Summary Skills aren't valuable in and of themselves. It's only the application of the skills that has value. And you can't apply skills without an in-depth understanding of the underlying (and surrounding) problem domain... and of the audience that will be judging the value of your involvement.

This piece by Paul Jarvis caught my eye this week -- "Specifician or Generalist?":

I got an email the other day from someone asking me if being a “Jack of all trades”, generalist freelancer was on purpose (since I do everything from design to programming to marketing to audio/video production, etc). They wondered if they should try to learn all those skills or just focus 100% on their craft.

It's a good question and a very common one asked by knowledge workers, whether employed traditionally, freelancing, or consulting. So I thought I'd add my take to Paul's (which is great, be sure to check it out too).

I've found focusing on a skill set, built over time through work on a particular problem domain, to be more valuable than focusing on any individual skill. The determinator of what skills make it into that set has arisen primarily from aiming at specific problems that needed solving, and not a focus on the skills themselves.

In that sense, it hasn't mattered which skill I've started out with. What has been more important is maintaining a focus on a specific problem domain faced by my client (or my employer).

(And I've adjusted my definition of those problem domains, as I've gained a better understanding of each one; or shifted my focus to other problem domains as I saw fit or from client to client / employer-to-employer).

This makes even more sense, and becomes easier to fully internalize, once you accept that skills aren't valuable in and of themselves. It's only the application of the skills that has value. And you can't apply skills without an in-depth understanding of the underlying (and surrounding) problem and the audience that will be judging the value of your involvement.

Because, no matter your skill / skill set, in the end your work product is judged purely on it's impact. Impact often transcends arbitrary boundaries of areas of expertise. Impact doesn't have nice clean lines around it. You often need to get a little outside your comfort zone to have the greatest impact. You often need to be willing to apply what you know for certain, and extend it to what you know to probably be helpful as well ...without a guarantee they line up perfectly with each other.

For example, let's say your audience is a non-profit organization that needs to more reliably process donations on their web site and you are an expert at integrating Stripe into WordPress based web sites.

Rather than taking the myopic approach of integrating a (much!) better payment processing system, stand back and try to understand more aspects of the surrounding problem domain and the "business." Like how they receive donation pledges, how the highest percentage of their overall raised funds ends up ultimately being paid to them, whether donors would like to have a means of establishing recurring pledges (e.g. monthly automated donations), how they keep track of how much each individual or organization has donated over time, who actually enters most of the donation payment information, where they are expecting most of their growth in donations to come from over the next twelve or so months, whether they have a centralized database that can be queried in a business relevant fashion, whether they have an email list of their donors (and ways to reach segments of them on-demand), etc.

It's not that any one of these is the "problem" per se, but that gathering information on your client's (or employer's) problem set creates a mental mosaic. It helps you get from want to need. You may find their real need -- the deeper value -- is not quite what it seems on the surface (or, more likely, that they have a lot of needs; but only a few very valuable and worthy of your time and your client's money or employer's investment.)

Your job as the expert -- as the knowledge worker -- is to help bridge the gap for the client (or employer) from their perceived want (i.e. a particular solution) to their actual need (i.e. the most valuable solution -- or at least a particularly valuable one -- you can come up with for their specific situation).

As such, if you're stuck as to where to start and/or what skill to build, it's probably a better idea to focus your energy and time on the problems faced by specific audiences -- and to then hone in on how to solve those specific problems for them -- than it is to be overly concerned about any specific skill or skill set.

In time you end up with a skill set, applicable to this audience and problem domain, and highly valuable because it's built just for them and their situation.

And if you're experience is anything like mine, you'll develop some unexpected skills, as a byproduct of working with your clients on certain problems. Skills that do not at all resemble what you once thought was your craft, but valuable nonetheless (and probably more so).

Then, if you're willing to grow just a bit more after reaching that point, you can often extend this skill set to other audiences and problem domains. This'll become easier in time as you develop additional expertise about these other problems and audiences, with, of course, an emphasis on their problems rather than your skill set. (This is counter-intuitive, but important to avoid falling into the trap of treating everything like a nail).

Ultimately, if you hone your skills at being able to drill down into the underlying business drivers and personal motivations for any work or request that comes your way ...and then refine your effectiveness at figuring out the best ways to target those drivers / motivations in a meaningful way as quickly as possible (you can always tweak and extend that impact further later on), you'll always be able to deliver value.

If there is a skill worth focusing on, it's that. It's particularly applicable to consultants, freelancers, and knowledge workers of any sort.

Do you have to take this approach? No. Just don't expect to find an easy answer to questions like "Which skill should I learn first?" (e.g. "Which virtualization platform should I learn first?") and "Should I be a generalist or a specialist?"

And don't expect to be as valuable to your client or employer as others who do apply this approach.

You can either be a problem solver (and maybe even innovator) or you can be somebody who gambles (i.e. picking a specific skill because it seems in demand) and does simply what is asked of them. One is always more valuable while the other just gets lucky (or not) from time to time (while not building skills in areas that are as valuable no matter what they're working on or where they end up).

Paul's post, which inspired this post, maps out his approach to moving from a specifician (yes, he made that word up) to a generalist. It's got some good suggestions, as always. Don't forget to check it out (and his other articles as well while you're at it.)

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