No, “T-shaped” people are not anatomically deformed nor extraterrestial beings. I came across the term in the excellent book The Ten Faces of Innovation by Tom Kelley:
At IDEO, we’ve found that some of our most valuable Cross-Pollinators are what we call “T-shaped” individuals. That is, they enjoy a breadth of knowledge in many fields, but they also have depth in at least one area of expertise. (p. 75)
T-shaped people are excellent at “cross-pollinating” between disciplines and ways of thinking. Their breadth of knowledge allows them to apply insights and innovations from other fields to another (usually to their area of expertise). Kelley recommends making a point of hiring individuals with this trait, but I might add that organizations could also do a better job of identifying and supporting the ones that are already there.
I started thinking about the T-shaped people that I know and it occurred to me that non-profits are natural magnets for this trait.
I consider myself a t-shaped person, although perhaps not yet especially deep (being a new professional). Diama and Monica are, too. Diama majored in English and Political Science, is a former librarian, and is an expert grant-writer for CAP. Oh and she knows a whole lot about innovation. That Masters in Library Science helps her be a more productive grant writer – for instance, she ruthlessly categorizes and stores every last email and bookmark in intricately catalogued sets of folders and subfolders. Monica studied comparative electoral systems in Latin America (or something?) for her doctoral dissertation, is now an expert in public policy and anti-poverty interventions, and I’m told was once a mascot at Chuck E. Cheese. That latter experience helped us while we planned a potential event at Incredible Pizza.
The point is that non-profits tend to draw people with a diverse set of experiences, competencies, and perspectives. Many of us came to the field with a somewhat hard-to-place undergraduate degree (lots of English and History majors around!) and developed our expertise in whatever position we could find. What could non-profits do to build on the talents of the T-shaped colleagues that surround us?
I have a second point: a liberal arts undergraduate education predisposes us to become t-shaped people, and non-profits naturally attract us and provide opportunities begin deepening our “T”. But how do we make sure we can keep and broaden our breadth? How do we constantly expose ourselves to new fields and ways of thinking? And how to we keep from boxing those experiences up as “leisure” that is unrelated to our work?
Already I feel the pressures of trying to keep and widen my breadth while still working hard to deepen my nascent professional expertise. That’s one reason I wanted to work for a few years before going on to graduate school, and why I’m hesitant to lock myself into one particular set of skills or work experiences. But I’d like to think there’s a way we can make our workplaces and organizations better at building T-shaped people of all widths and depths. Our pool of knowledge is so incredibly broad here – surely we can fish out some solutions from opera, or golf, or aerospace, or whatever, so we can overcome some of those chronic challenges that plague our anti-poverty mission.
My New Year’s resolution is to keep getting deeper and wider in 2009. What’s yours?