Why We Need T-Shaped Innovators

by Pete Foley

t-shaped professionalEditor’s note: For newcomers who may not be familiar with the concept, the term T-shaped is used to describe people who have depth of skills and experience in one discipline, represented by the vertical line, while also having a broad understanding and experience in various disciplines, represented by the horizontal line. A breadth of knowledge and cross-disciplinary competence provide empathy for other disciplines and sets the stage for a fruitful collaboration.[1]

Big disruptive innovations don’t usually come from experts in the field. Max Planck, the famous physicist famously quipped that “science advances one funeral at a time”, and in some ways, you can argue that this applies equally to innovation. In the latter case, it is typically market leadership that dies, and the disrupting company deliberately hastens the demise of the incumbent company. Of course, in science, actively killing off rival academics is frowned upon, but in many ways the process is analogous.

Deeply embedded expertise can become a significant barrier to innovation. Our natural human bias is to look at problems through the lens of our own expertise. A military expert will tend to look for military solutions to a problem, while a diplomat will tend to favor a diplomatic approach to the same issue. Closer to my own experience, a chemist will tend to look at detergents to clean clothes, while an engineer may look at improving washing machine efficiency.

While this is often a smart way to approach a problem in a new field, it can also lock us into evolving along increasingly narrow and predictable vectors as a category or technology evolves. And this can become acute, even fatal for big, established market leading companies. They naturally accumulate expertise in a relatively narrow field and innovate along that path: A strategy driven by expertise, but often reinforced by equity. The problem is that eventually this can lead to increasingly incremental advances, and require disproportionate effort to advance the product along key equity vectors, as the category becomes more mature. There is a limit to how clean you can get a shirt, or how sharp a TV picture can become before advances become meaningless in real terms.

This doesn’t mean that there is no longer an opportunity to innovate, simply that we need to innovate with more diversity. Perhaps a laundry detergent needs to evolve towards delivering more fragrance based benefits, or TV screens become self-cleaning to maximize image sharpness over time.

Embedded expertise often creates a culture that resists these kinds of changes in innovation strategy. Sometimes this can be subtle, sometimes not, but it can leave mature brands increasingly vulnerable to disruption.

There are many ways to address this. I’ve talked often about actively searching for inspiration at interfaces, the power of integrating art and science, biomimicry, and analogy. We can also use innovation techniques or workshops that challenge evolutionary progress, or we can attempt to trigger disruption by recruiting experts in other fields. But workshops reduce innovation to special events, rather than making them business as usual within an organization. And recruitment of diversified capability is inefficient. This is because it requires second guessing where disruption will likely come from. You have to know what the disruptive technology is going to be in order to recruit from that field. Sometimes this is relatively easy. If you manufactured cameras 20 years ago, it would have been smart to recruit people with expertise in photo sensors and digital image processing.

Likewise, if you are in the business of market research, and you have not been recruiting psychologists over the last 5-10 years, you are probably in trouble. But often the magic of disruptive innovation is that it comes from left field. Taxi companies didn’t see Uber coming, any more than Blockbuster saw Netflix, or the record industry i-Tunes or Pandora, at least until it was too late.

The source of disruptive innovation is by its very nature unpredictable. So if you don’t know where disruption is going to come from, T-shaped innovators or expert generalists can be powerful assets to an innovation team.

These curious people won’t know as much about a field as an expert who has spent their life focused on a narrow area. But they will know about a lot of different, often emerging areas, and often know enough to see opportunities. Good ones are also typically sufficiently well connected to know where to go for that deep, narrow knowledge.

Typically, business, and especially academia have rewarded deep, narrow knowledge. And rightly so, this deep expertise has enormous value, provided it is focused on where the big, future disruptive innovations are. It is much harder to quantify generalists, but if you don’t have enough of them integrated into your innovation organization, you may well be simply evolving while someone else is getting ready to revolutionize your category.


image credit: dypdc.com; slideshare.net

Innovation Starts Here

Wait! Before you go…

Choose how you want the latest innovation content delivered to you:


A twenty-five year Procter & Gamble veteran, Pete Foley has spent the last 8+ years applying insights from psychology and behavioral science to innovation, product design, and brand communication. He spent 17 years as a serial innovator, creating novel products, perfume delivery systems, cleaning technologies, devices and many other consumer-centric innovations, resulting in well over 100 granted or published patents. Follow him @foley_pete

One comment

Leave a Reply