Hiring managers can be prone to think vertically when trying to fill a capability gap. They think in terms of specialist skills and alignment with existing or hypothesised silos. Despite a common requirement to collaborate and operate in a cross-disciplinary fashion, historically, a search for these important skills and behaviours has been given less attention than it deserves.

About ten years ago, Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO, resurrected the notion of the T-shaped person and embedded it into IDEO’s recruiting and talent retention culture. He asserts that innovation needs T-shaped people and I agree with his sentiment although I also feel that it is a bit more complicated than that.

The T-shape model has two parts and refers to two important characteristics. The vertical line relates to depth of expertise, whilst the horizontal line relates to collaborative and integrative behaviours. The model assumes a two-dimensional construct where there is only one domain of expertise, only one vertical line.

My view is that it might be more useful to consider multiple levels of expertise that are developed in different domains to varying degrees of depth at different times and with varying longevity or relevance. This would yield a 3D model consisting of a time-series of T-shapes, of potentially different sizes, that would create a kind of stalactite effect.

© Jaroslav Moravcik / 123RF Stock Photo

© Jaroslav Moravcik / 123RF Stock Photo

“If there is one word that makes creative people different from others, it is the word complexity. Instead of being an individual, they are a multitude.” – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

A problem often cited as an important block to successful innovation is the silo mentality. Silos of expertise arise naturally and make sense to a point. Mastery of a narrow domain and performance at the cutting edge is often where discoveries, breakthroughs and inventions are made. But that’s not innovation. Vertical integration is important but it usually needs to be married with something from other domains to become truly innovative and create a complete solution. In fact, one mechanism for addressing this gave rise to the notion of ‘Tiger Teams’ – a temporary team of experts formed specifically to investigate and/or solve a particular problem.

In some situations, cross-domain working can create an environment where collaboration becomes an exercise in negotiation – seeking compromise rather than synergy. Trying to compensate by adding a purely ‘horizontal’ person, a facilitator/coordinator/mediator, is a remedy that is sometimes recruited and can be made to work to a degree. The trouble with this approach is that this individual’s contribution might be quite shallow. This is why Tim Brown asserts that it is better to have the T-shape people everywhere.

The ‘ideal’ T-shaped person provides ideas and content, thinks laterally and holistically and cross-pollinates different cultural and disciplinary perspectives. They have a deep domain expertise that allows them to make significant contributions while at the same time they exhibit a cross-domain literacy and empathy that helps glue everything together.

In my view it would be a mistake to assume that such individuals are easy to find or even create. In fact, I believe the T-shape is somewhat idealistic and not necessarily a valid goal in its own right. It would be demanding for a specialist to remain up to speed in their art while, at the same time, develop anything more than a passing familiarity with a number of, potentially unrelated, other domains. Regardless of their level of enthusiasm, sacrifices would have to be made and what is more likely to happen is that one vertical line would slow its development as others grow. Some areas of expertise may begin to atrophy as they are supplemented or even supplanted by others. This is not at all a bad thing but it does create a different type of individual – more of a ‘stalactite’ kind of person as suggested earlier.

Like many models, the T-shape idea is useful in its simplicity but limited by that very same characteristic. Extending it into a third dimension to recognise a more dynamic construct provides an alternative perspective and one potentially more applicable to the truly integrative nature of innovation.

I recently watched a documentary from the BBC entitled “the Secret of Drawing” and in one episode there was a surgeon who was also an accomplished artist. Inspired by Leonardo da Vinci, he combined both of these skills in a way that let him plan his surgical procedures in advance by sketching them first in considerable detail. He sketched with a high degree of proficiency that we can only hope extends into the operating theatre as well.

Effective synergies can be found in the most unlikely places. So, when you are next building a team or just looking to enhance your own capabilities try to think beyond deep mastery, beyond a simply collaborative veneer and beyond the T-shape. Appreciate diversity and examine the value that a multiplicity of skills, experiences and perspectives can bring to the realm of innovation.

 “If you keep doing what you’ve always done, you’ll keep getting what you’ve always got.” – W.L. Bateman

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AuthorTrevor Lindars