April 16, 2020

How T-shaped People Can Help You Drive Innovation

Michel Gagnon
Michel Gagnon
CEO of Stun&Awe

Managing a tech startup has never been so complex, even before the pandemic. Increasingly advanced regulations (GDPR and CCPA for example), better or misinformed customers, climate change, social inequalities, and challenges with strategic focus amid all the new tech noise all make running a startup more complicated.

What kind of people do you need on your team to build a scalable and meaningful business?

If you haven’t heard of the term ‘T-shaped people’, it’s time for you to start paying attention. For your business, T-shaped people may become your diamond in the rough.

What is a T-Shaped Person?

The idea of a T-shaped person has been around since the 1980s. It wasn’t really madepopular until more recently when Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO design consultancy, threw his weight behind the term.

A T-shaped person is somebody who has a deep understanding of one particular discipline (signalled by that little vertical line on the T). They’re experts at their craft. Strong product owners, star engineers, marketing wizards, or fabulous customer success reps. On top of that, they have some knowledge, interest, and ability to work across other disciplines (the horizontal line).

For instance, you may have a solid backend engineer who also understands and is interested in marketing and business. Or maybe your team includes a high performing sales person who really gets technology and data.

Basically, it’s someone who is great at their given role and can leverage their knowledge and interest in other disciplines to support cross-functional projects.

Why T-Shaped People?

You may be wondering: “Isn't’ a T-shaped employee just a great employee who gets shit done? Why the need for the label?” Good question.

In the past, I never was a big believer of frameworks and concepts. I always felt it was a way for consultants to invent terms and charge you a big fee without bringing any real value.

I’ve changed my mind since then. Not because I was a consultant for a while, but because business frameworks and concepts around people (like T-shape) help you mentally structure your challenges and your business. They force you to shift your mindset.

The true value of T-shaped talent is in their ability to connect the dots, see problems from a different vantage point, show genuine empathy towards your customers, and come up with surprising innovations.

Concretely, they can:

  • Drive multidisciplinary innovation
  • Bring a more holistic approach to problem solving
  • Improve communication across departments

How Your T-Shaped Employees Can Drive Innovation

The functional structure of many tech startups often hinders multidisciplinary collaboration. Instead, you get teams, or tribes stuck in stage 3 of tribal leadership, believing that they are superior and better than everyone else.

People say things like: “Engineers are just modern day bureaucrats. The only difference is that they go through JIRA tickets instead of stamping paper forms.” Or something like “Sales is full of bozos who have no clue about what our product actually does.”

T-shape employees can help you get out of that stalemate. They thrive in multidisciplinary teams. They can drive innovation and collaboration by bringing experts together and connecting disciplines.

Think calligraphy, design, and technology with Steve Jobs for example.

Given the unprecedented impact the pandemic is having on people’s lives and the economy, tech startup CEOs need all the collaboration and innovation they can get to reinvent their business.

Here are some concrete ideas on how you can empower T-shaped employees to innovate:

  • Give them the project lead on a project to completely transform your customer experience from the very first touchpoint with your company to them becoming true fans.
  • Ask a small group of T-shaped people from different departments to come up with a new product idea.
  • Ask them to figure out how your supply chain could save lives.

How Can You Help T-Shaped Employees Grow and Excel

Your organisation might be new to this way of working, and you’re not the only ones. But just because you haven’t actually hired specifically against the T style, doesn’t mean they don’t already exist in your business.

If you’re a company that encourages collaboration, and doesn’t expect people to stay in their lanes, then you’re already on to a winner, friend!

If not, there’s a few things you need to work on:

  • Develop a culture where idea meritocracy prevails: You don’t want your product or sales team to have the not-invented-here syndrome. The best way to help your T-shaped is to give them and your whole team the space to put new ideas on the table and experiment with them.
  • Design projects based on multidisciplinary teams. For example, you could bring marketing, sales, customer success, product, and engineering together and ask them to create three ways to improve the customer onboarding process.
  • When you hire, look beyond just vertical expertise and hire with diversity of interest and experience in mind. If you take a look at the Stun and Awe team, you’ll discover quite a lot of diversity in terms of experience, nationalities, and professional path. History major turned CEO, Civil engineer turned entrepreneur, marketer and design thinking practitioner, and even a nurse illustrator!
  • Most importantly, you need to genuinely believe that there’s something to learn in every discipline and give permission to T-shaped people to mine their past experience. Having a great designer that understands what is important to a copywriter is important. Having a supply chain manager who has worked as a sales buyer will allow them to understand the need for flexibility in ordering. Allowing them to enable their curiosity and draw from their vast background will only improve performance and creativity in your projects.

What if you could boost your team’s performance and creativity

If you’re curious about T-shaped professionals and how they can help your business, you’re in luck. We’ll be launching very soon an online course in which you’ll learn how to design an effective and meaningful business. Our module on People covers more on T-shaped people and on building tribes.

Join our Courses!

Growth Leap Courses