Innovation calls for T-Shaped People

In January 2005, Tim Brown, Executive Chair of IDEO, wrote an insightful piece for FastCompany introducing Design Thinking into the field of strategy, while also introducing the phrase ‘T-Shaped People’. Tim discussed IDEO’s five-point model for strategizing by design. We’ll focus on one: Recruit T-Shaped People.

[T-Shaped People] have a principal skill that describes the vertical leg of the T–they’re mechanical engineers or industrial designers. But they are so empathetic that they can branch out into other skills, such as anthropology, and do them as well. They are able to explore insights from many different perspectives and recognize patterns of behavior that point to a universal human need. That’s what you’re after at this point–patterns that yield ideas.

We look for people who are so inquisitive about the world that they’re willing to try to do what you do. We call them “T-shaped people.

They have a principal skill that describes the vertical leg of the T–they’re mechanical engineers or industrial designers. But they are so empathetic that they can branch out into other skills, such as anthropology, and do them as well. They are able to explore insights from many different perspectives and recognize patterns of behavior that point to a universal human need. That’s what you’re after at this point–patterns that yield ideas.

In August 2006, Alexander Osterwalder, co-Founder of Strategyzer, stated:

There’s a seduction to being an expert, an assumption in society that credibility relies on deep (and narrow) expertise. However, for people operating at the edges, intersections, and overlaps where innovation thrives, being a generalist is far more powerful.

While referring to Brown’s article on T-Shaped People:

In my own experience I realized that I have to be able to seduce domain specialist with concepts that are familiar to them if I want to engage in a worthwile discussion. Talking directly about a topic I’m interested in rarely leads to a lively discussion, while tackling exactly the same topic from the specialist’s starting point often proves successful. However, this only works when I can give the specialist the impression that I understand the rules & functioning of his domain.

Furthermore, I can personally attest to the following experience:

But with time I realized the power of not fitting in – I learned about the concepts applied in one area and started to see their potential for another area. However, it was an eternal struggle to stay knowledgeable enough in each domain to be taken seriously by the so-called specialists.

Leadership

When asked: “Which relationships are most important for creating value for customers?”, research by Harvard’s Heidi Gardner (2015) revealed that professionals prioritize horizontal relationships which require cross-silo leadership:

As clients have globalized and confronted more-sophisticated technological, regulatory, economic, and environmental demands, [professional services firms] have sought help on increasingly complex problems. To keep up, most top-tier firms have created or acquired narrowly defined practice areas and encouraged partners to specialize. The only way to address clients’ most complex issues, then, is for specialists to work together across the boundaries of their expertise.

But for the professionals involved, the financial benefits of collaboration accrue slowly, and other advantages are hard to quantify. That makes it difficult to decide whether the investment in learning to collaborate will pay off. Even if they value the camaraderie of collaborative work, many partners are hard-pressed to spend time and energy on cross-specialty ventures when they could be building their own practices instead.

As identified by Heidi Gardner, if leadership fails to prioritize and incentivize multidisciplinary collaboration, the firm will have a hard time coping with today’s challenges and even harder time keeping up with the competition.

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