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4/19/2010
04:54 PM
Ben Kepes
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Finding the People Who Can Best Drive Innovation...

This post first appeared at Diversity Analysis

I spent some time recently talking with Terri Griffith, a lovely lady who also happens to be a professor of management at Santa Clara University. Terri''s focus is on the "implementation and effective use of new technologies and organizational practices." Terri hunted me down after seeing a post I recently wrote about the disconnect between technological tools and the culture within the organizations that are attempting to deploy those tools.

Over 30 minutes or so, Terri and I had an energetic conversation about technology implementation, and the wider Enterprise 2.0 space. I''ve said many times before that it concerns me that most Enterprise 2.0 commentators have a high level perspective on organizations and thus miss the all to important aspect of how culture on the shop floor is an impediment to adoption. Or, to put it more correctly, how technology fails to design products based on the realities for shopfloor workers.

All this got me thinking about my role in a former life, in which I consulted to organizations helping with Design Strategy (capitalization intentional). In this role I attempted to build cross functional teams that could ideate outside of the constraints of the status quo, while empathetically hearing the perspectives of others. Often when doing this work we would defer to the concept espoused by design consultancy IDEO, that organizations should look for individuals who fitted the mold of "T-shaped people"

According to IDEO, T-shaped people:

have two kinds of characteristics, hence the use of the letter "T" to describe them. The vertical stroke of the "T" is a depth of skill that allows them to contribute to the creative process. That can be from any number of different fields: an industrial designer, an architect, a social scientist, a business specialist or a mechanical engineer. The horizontal stroke of the "T" is the disposition for collaboration across disciplines. It is composed of two things. First, empathy. It''s important because it allows people to imagine the problem from another perspective- to stand in somebody else''s shoes. Second, they tend to get very enthusiastic about other people''s disciplines, to the point that they may actually start to practice them. T-shaped people have both depth and breadth in their skills.

I''ve had a notion I''ve been tossing around now for five years or so and it''s one of triangle shaped people. I don''t want to push the metaphor but humor me a little on this one and I''ll explain. You see the problem I see with T-shaped people both in IDEO''s definition and from what I''ve seen in practice, is that these people have a very thin veneer of broad knowledge - connect many of these people together and, beyond the thin veneer, there are huge functional gaps between them.

Rather than merely semantics, this is a major risk for organizations as much damage can be done by groups that, from appearances at least, have broad ranging skills. When let loose on projects, this thin veneer can soon develop cracks and be the cause of project failure.

Triangle shaped people are very different however. They begin with a broad skill base but, rather than only having this breadth over a very fine depth, their skill base narrows gradually as it deepens - these people are balanced and have much higher levels of what I call skill volume than the T-shaped individuals.

The thesis goes that T shaped people collaborate but don't increase an organizations skill volume much if at all. Triangle shaped people however greatly increase skill volume in a "sum of the parts" type way.

Beyond skill volume however, triangle shaped people have an important benefit when working in groups. In a cross functional group staffed with triangle shaped people, members alongside each other have much more closely aligned areas of deep knowledge - for this reason, an approach that encourages triangle shaped people can result in a deepening of knowledge across the entire team.

It''s an area I''m re-energized about and one which I''m looking forward to collaborating with Terri on further.

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