T-Shaped Teams

by Larry Marturano

August 3rd, 2009

I heard once that our biggest mistakes buy us our most meaningful insights. Not that it’s very fun, mind you. But it’s true, we do learn from our mistakes. And for those of us who are not airline pilots or surgeons, they can be positive, career-changing insights.

When I was first putting teams together as a young manager, I remember wondering about how to build cross-functional teams. Of course, I knew cross-functional teams were Good Things™. But I really had no idea how to start. Around that time, I volunteered for an initiative that I thought would be highly creative and teach me something about team building. Our team was tasked with redesigning a key business process and it was made up of highly talented members with diverse backgrounds—one guy was a twenty year finance guru, another was a longtime supply chain manager, a couple of us were developers and engineers. We even had a cognitive psychologist on the team.

What looked like a fun and interesting extra assignment turned into a nightmare and the bane of my existence for nearly a year. Our team bickered like there was no tomorrow. Meetings were endless, and I didn’t think we’d ever agree on anything. People spent most of their time trying to convince—or bully—other team members into seeing things their way. When we finally delivered and implemented, I remember feeling like we should have been able to do more with less—more creativity, less stress and strife.

I was lucky to learn a valuable lesson from this mercifully temporary assignment.

Cross-functional teams are best made up of cross-functional people.

Oh, I’m not saying that teams made up entirely of domain experts can’t be functional. But what I realized then, and have lived by ever since, is that you greatly increase the odds of good teaming and group creativity by assembling teams of people with diverse backgrounds. I’ve found that teams assembled this way are both more creative and efficient—and just more fun—than teams of experts.

In his wonderful book, “The Ten Faces of Innovation,” Tom Kelley calls these people “T-shaped”. They have a deep expertise in one area, but much broader, shallower knowledge about lots of other areas. In other words, they know a lot about a little AND a little about a lot. Kelley claims that T-shaped people are excellent cross-pollinators on a team, bringing in novel ideas from far and wide to enhance innovation.

I agree with Tom in almost every respect, but I have a little different take on what makes these people such great teammates and innovators.

Actually, I think the key is empathy.

I remember when I learned Spanish. In my naiveté, I thought that learning another language was like word mapping. Figure out what you want to say in English, translate each word to Spanish, and there you go, yo hablo Espanol. This worked great until I ran across words that represented cultural concepts that just don’t translate… like, the Spanish concept of “manana.” This little word represents an entire set of cultural values around timing, urgency and priorities that just don’t translate to English. If you’ve ever done business in Mexico, as I have, you know what I mean.

At any rate, there is that day when you realize that another language isn’t just another set of sounds that you use to represent the same concepts, they’re another set of concepts entirely, another way of looking at the world. Once I realized this, I was never the same. I “got” it, at a gut level. There was more than one way to think about the world! I was changed and I never looked at anything—most of all world news—the same way again.

I think it’s like that with “T-shaped people”, too. When we get classically trained in any discipline, we get acculturated in that discipline’s view of the world. Engineers look at problems one way, graphic designers another way, architects yet another way. But when you’re exposed to more than one field of training, you “get” that there is more than one way to look at the world.

The people I’ve worked with who’ve had this transformative realization seem to be able to relate to others on a different level. They have what I call “disciplinary empathy”. They can see the world through others’ eyes and appreciate their approaches to problems.

And when people like this get on a team, they spend much less time arguing about which approach to take, what method is superior, whose ideas are best. They realize that there is more than one way to solve a problem, and they seem to be able to synthesize across disciplines easier, coming up with more numerous and more creative ideas.

So when you’re looking for your next design team, look for cross-functional people. Engineers who paint, anthropologists who can code, designers with MBAs… anyone whose background shows that they know there’s more than one way to look at a problem.

Cada quien tiene su manera de matar pulgas. There indeed, is more than one way to skin a cat.

Tags: larry, management, team dynamics

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