“Regardless of whether your goal is to innovate around a product, service, or business opportunity, you get good insights by having an observant and empathetic view of the world...empathy allows you to have original insights about the world. It also enables you to build better teams.” Tim Brown, IDEO
I've been doing some work for a client recently around digital skills and structures, which has given me cause to revisit the thinking around so-called 'T-shaped' people, a concept of which I've long been fond.
As a term, it was popularised by Tim Brown of IDEO of-course (notably in that well-referenced 'Strategy By Design' FastCompany article) yet it was originated by McKinseys, who used it to describe the kind of people they were looking to hire as those who possessed a strong vertical skill (the vertical stroke of the T), but who also had a broad empathy toward other skills and disciplines encountered in the business. These were the people whose adaptability and capacity to learn made them ideal management consultants.
In McKinsey’s case the vertical stroke of the ‘T’ described deep analytical skills, but Tim Brown used it in the context of recruiting designers or engineers who were inquisitive about and empathetic with other skills (such as anthropology) and able to "explore insights from many different perspectives and recognize patterns of behaviour that point to a universal human need".
So why revisit this now? For a very real reason. I'm a big believer in the value of specialist skills. As well as the kind of deep knowledge and expertise that can be applied to the completion of specific tasks, specialists keep you in touch with the latest techniques, thinking and opportunities in specific areas and enable expanded thinking.
But I also think that as brands move increasingly toward having multiple digital touchpoints and creating digital experiences with and for customers (as opposed to simply messaging), the successful integration of multiple digital channels from the beginning becomes more important. And this requires interdisciplinary teams that work together in highly collaborative ways, building on each others insights and knowledge. In this scenario, people who are able to apply deep vertical skills but have empathy with other skills in the team and an appetite for (and attitude conducive to) effective collaboration will be highly prized. As Ben says, “we need people fluent in one language but literate in many” and like Ben, I think, my own version of what T-shaped actually means has always been as much about attitude as it has about skills and knowledge.
At Firestarters 3, Mel talked about how the agency operating system of the future might be characterised by (and able to deliver scale through) small, nimble teams with hybrid skills. It's the kind of thinking that is applicable not just to agencies, but to broader business. Having the right kind of 'T-shaped' people, might just be the critical competitive advantage of the future.