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.

Ben Kepes

Ben Kepes is a technology evangelist, an investor, a commentator and a business adviser. Ben covers the convergence of technology, mobile, ubiquity and agility, all enabled by the Cloud. His areas of interest extend to enterprise software, software integration, financial/accounting software, platforms and infrastructure as well as articulating technology simply for everyday users.

6 Comments
  • I think this area is infinitely more complex… A general personality type is bound to fail… in some companies (ehem) you might need an absolute bull in charge just to beat off the parent…. in others a maestro to co ordinate… and working for them someone general enough to understand the business and technical challenge, plus a bunch of expertise on how to actually solve it…. and all of them wrapped up in a blanket of wanting to actually get an outcome and being passionate about growing something

    • Paul – Terri has it right – this is a personal skill question rather than a personality type one. Agreed that there are various roles that need to be filled to fulfill all the different roles within a team – but in terms of actual skill volume – the triangle shaped person concept has legs.

      It makes way more sense when you see diagrams – the finger paint and crayon department is looking at that right now – stay tuned!

  • If there were a prize for best LOL comment, I'd vote for Zoli to win….

    Paul, I think what we're getting at has more to do with knowledge/capabilities than with personality. I agree that teams need members with task knowledge, social & process facilitation capabilities (as perhttp://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&i… – both task skills and collaboration skills. But what I think we're thinking about in terms of a knowledge triangle is that greater volume of knowledge can allow us to have more benefit than just the empathy & enthusiasm mentioned in the IDEO quote. If people are broad in their knowledge beyond the "thin veneer" they will see nuances and be more supportive of others' development of mastery.

    Interesting question around whether it's more or less helpful to just focus on task-related knowledge, or to include collaborative/facilitation knowledge as well. Thanks for raising the question.

    • Terri – I knew I'd found the right collaboration partner – there's not many people who can beat me to a blog comment – I doff my hat in your direction for doing so!

  • I really like this concept of the triangle shaped people because I think I am one myself as an interdisciplinary student. We are truly in need of these people who often are the interlocutors that can translate the necessary conversations between different stakeholders. I come from a background where I majored in Social Science specializing in research and analytical methods taking sociology, cultural studies, and other social science courses while also doing a minor in Computer Science and a minor in Digital Arts. I am now a PhD student in an interdisciplinary program called Technology, Media and Society. As a researcher, experiments in the lab in a single discipline may only be narrowly applicable to the real world because the reality we live in is messy, complex, and requires expertise from multiple disciplines. If you take any real world problem, it is obvious that it requires a multi-stakeholder perspective.

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