IDEO is regarded as one of the top Innovation firms globally and one of their core practices is to find and develop “T-Shaped” individuals. T-Shaped individuals will hold deep expertise in a certain field but will have broad experiences and interests that allow them to easily work in and understand cross-functional teams as well as develop unique insights specific to their experiences.
This mindset seems to be a necessary pre-requisite to innovation and collaboration. Another analogy for a T-Shaped individual is that of a “Renaissance” man or woman, again a practice which focuses on development of something niche but also practice is many different and often unrelated fields to drive unique solutions and inventions.
However, this concept goes against much of what is developed in traditional corporations and schooling where we are rewarded for deep niche expertise. Certain graduate rotation programs aim to create this cross-functional expertise, but the value is in having individuals who are truly interested in, and practicing, different disciplines as opposed to “doing their time”. New programs are popping up such as Parson’s Strategic Design Management Program and Stanford’s d.school which mix business and design or the USC Iovine Young Academy which mixes art, business and tech.
It is important to focus on developing this skillset and there are ways outside of formulated programs to work on your “T”, though everyone’s “T” will be made up of different sets of experiences. Determining your vertical I or mastery area is quite simple, and you need to actively develop and hone your skills. For your horizontal T there are many great ways to explore other fields:
It can be easy to fall into the trap of reading what you traditionally like, I tend to collect non-fiction business books and read traditional business magazines. I have challenged myself to explore new areas by reading new magazines ranging from topics on travel, architecture, poetry collections, science journals etc. I also have incorporated into my daily RSS readings a whole set of feeds meant to take me out of my current field.
The best way to practice and actively develop skills is to take courses in new areas. I have been taking advantage of MOOCs and the wide array of courses they offer. I have taken a number of courses on innovation but also on art history, game theory and I am starting a course soon on “Stunt Writing”.
Everyone knows travel is a great way to broaden thinking and observe new ways of being. I like to challenge myself to travel somewhere new and unexpected every year with my recent extended stays occurring in Guangzhou China, Medellin Colombia, and Marrakech Morocco.
Create a Credible Practice
I have a colleague who works in sustainability and his part-time hobby is ocean photography. It’s a great complement to his work but very unique and inspiring. Whether its creating a photo portfolio, a blog, writing a book on a topic, participating in competitions or otherwise it can be helpful to have a dedicated practice that proves your cross-disciplinary interests.