Wednesday, September 1, 2021

Jack of All Trades, Masterful One

I know that the title abuses the old adage “jack of all trades, master of none,” but it does so for a reason. First, as a small sidenote, the full expression used to be “jack of all trades” and was meant as a compliment. “Master of none” was added to make it less flattering. Second, I want to talk about some old research on how the old version, “jack of all trades,” might be more accurate provided the knowledge of each trade is not superficial.

In research published in Academy of Management Journal, Alva Taylor and I analyzed the collector values of old comic books. You know, the type of products that today don’t come in print, but instead appear as movies based on Marvel or DC characters. I am sure you have seen some of them. Comic books are interesting for research because we can measure the quality and innovativeness easily: high quality means high average value; high innovativeness means great variation in the value. Why the latter? Because anything new and surprising can fall flat but can also become a massive hit.

We had many findings, but I am particularly interested in the effect of creators having worked in multiple genres before making a new comic book. That’s the same as learning multiple trades because each genre has its own styles and conventions, so learning a new genre is difficult. But also, it can give fuel for innovation because knowledge of multiple genres helps the creator make novel combinations. And indeed, experience with multiple genres resulted in more innovative comic books. (It also increased quality, but that’s not the point I want to emphasize today.)

Here is the part I did not tell you yet. Comic books can be created by individuals or by teams, so we can talk about one person’s experience with genres, or the sum of genre experiences by a team. Is there a difference in which one becomes most innovative? Yes. Experience with more than three genres means that an individual will become more innovative than a team although individuals start out being less innovative. Clearly, individual creators have an easier time integrating genres.

Now there is research suggesting something similar happens not with knowledge integration, but with cultural integration in new ventures. This is important because many new ventures seek to combine the organizational cultures known by their founders into something new and unique, but often they end up adhering to an industry standard instead. Recent work by Yeonsin Ahn shows that cultural integration is helped by broader cultural experience, but only if this experience is held by individuals.

I can’t help but think that there is an interesting parallel here. It is so much easier to build up knowledge by sharing the work across individuals and forming a team. But, if the goal is to combine what has been learnt, individuals are better at it.

Taylor A, Greve HR. 2006. Superman or the Fantastic Four? Knowledge combination and experience in innovative teams. Academy of Management Journal 49(4): 723-740.