The importance of T-shaped individuals

Most of the content for this post comes from a presentation I gave at a job interview which I did not get; so take that for what it’s worth. For the most part the presentation was well received, however I probably could have used a bit more polish. The idea itself came (not surprisingly) from the good people at IDEO. Or at least, from their words and deeds.

The T-shaped individual.

What the T means

Here be knowledge, here be expertise

The phrase by itself is quite meaningless. You need to dig a bit and take it apart in order to understand what it means. As a T might look like a person, you have to imagine the height of the T indicates the depth of expertise you have in a given field (generally your specialty.) The cross on top indicates the breadth of knowledge or set of skills you have across disciplines.

Not long ago (at least to my recollection) all we heard about was how the people who were the most specialized would get the best jobs. This terrified me. I abhor specialization. I like to know a lot about a few things, and a little about everything. That’s just the way my ADD-addled brain works. So you can imagine my happiness as I read about how IDEO (the company I clearly idealize) looks for T-shapedness when hiring. They do so because they argue that this leads to better team formation; individuals with varied backgrounds are able to communicate more easily and with more empathy (because they understand each other’s backgrounds somewhat more – of course, empathy itself is something that is looked upon favorably at IDEO when hiring). Instead of occupying silos of expertise, teams are cross-functional – you get recombination and variation (basically like sex with ideas) and in general, better ideas and results.

Great right?

Of course it’s great. But the metaphor is incomplete. I went on to read about the importance of I shaped individuals by Bill Buxton, who, while not actually from IDEO himself, is apparently good friends with Bill Moggridge, the co-founder of IDEO. The difference here is that the bottom of the I is a grounding in practical experience. So, you have breadth of knowledge, deep expertise in one domain, and to cap that off, a lot of experience relevant to that domain.

Giving T-shaped people their feet.

I shaped people have feet

Thank you, BusinessWeek

For my purposes, the presentation had to do with getting liberal arts majors interesting co-op positions, so I argued that while the liberal arts majors are quintessentially T-shaped individuals (pretty much the only reason I have a History degree is because I also got to study Astronomy, Biology, Physics, Spanish, Anthropology, Geography, etc etc) and therefore able to help connect individual silos within organizations, they are in need of their feet (ie. the practical experience that will help them achieve their goals in whatever it is they do in life). Hiring a liberal arts major is akin to giving them their feet. And with these feet they will march off into the world, secure in the knowledge that while they are alumni of a major educational institution, they are also alumni of the first order at your organization, because that is where they brought their heads out of the clouds and got their feet muddy in the practical world of experience.

What does it mean?*

Jack of all trades

Seriously the greatest image to ever grace this blog.

It means it’s a great time to be alive if you believe in curiosity, creativity, and caring about the work that you do. I used to believe in the world my parents grew up in – the one where you made the decision about what you would do with your life before you were 25, were most likely married, and probably had kids. And that world made me feel very out of place. This is what I’ve known I would be since I was 16: a doctor, a professor, a business guy of some type, a writer, a professional traveler/travel writer, a teacher, back to some type of business guy, and currently a marketing dude. Will that last? I doubt it. I’m pretty sure there are a lot of other hats I want to seriously try on before I die, and I hope that the experiences and skills I’ve picked up a long the way will help tell the story of a very empathic T-shaped individual who is trying to make the world a better place, one day at a time.

*Because I can’t help but try and be funny in the middle of being serious, some of you will catch the reference to the Complete Double Rainbow Guy. If you don’t, go to youtube, and google that immediately.

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