The Creative Leader Series: Part 4

Empathy is often the eye that opens up a whole new world of seeing…

We have this tendency, even in today’s modern world, to view our creatives as these lone, isolated, often misunderstood individuals that generate an incredible array of ideas and work in closed off seclusion. And while this fabled belief still stands as a false misnomer and representation of not only how creativity is activated, it tends to have a negative effect on how we view our creative people and how they work.

Which means as leaders, we not only have to build a better understanding of how to engage more creativity and innovation, we have to reframe our idea of what we need to look for and aim to build up in those within our organizations.

Which means, as Jim Collins shared in his seminal work ‘Good to Great’ we need to get the “right people in the right seats on the bus”

The problem is, we don’t always get to choose what people are on what seats on the bus. Very often, the bus is fully loaded and ready to go when we arrive. And when we do get that choice, we need to not only be aware, but know what to look for if we are going to bring more creative and innovative people on board that organizational bus.

Which means not only in hiring, but in the training, professional learning and development we provide to those in our organizations. We might begin by considering what Tim Brown of IDEO refers to as “T-shaped persons.” Which is anything but the lone, secluded and misunderstood creative that we often think of.

So, the question then is, what is a “T-shaped person” and how do they support more creative and innovative organizations?

As Tim Brown shares in his Fast Company article, Strategy by Design, T-shaped people have a principal skill that describes the vertical leg of the T, but they are so empathetic that they can branch out into other skills and do them well.” Brown adds that “you get good insights by having an observant and empathetic view of the world. You can’t just stand in your own shoes; you’ve got to be able to stand in the shoes of others.”

Or as Amy Birchall shares in her article T-Shaped People: The New Employees of the Digital Age, “While the T-shaped people can work in a range of disciplines,” they are “creative and make good collaborators.” She adds, “T-shapes have depth of skill in one discipline, which is represented by the vertical of the letter T. They also have an ability to collaborate across disciplines, which are represented by the T’s horizontal bar.” 

It is these definitions that outline the ‘why’ for T-shaped people being vital to having more creative and innovative organizations.

T-shaped people are the cross-pollinators of our organizations. Their creative, collaborative and empathetic spirit allows them to not only share their own strengths, but to gain insights and learning from those outside of their strength areas. They are not the independent, isolated workers that we’ve been led to believe, in regards to our highly creative people. Rather, they are more interdependent, than independent in their work. They are strong networkers who engage a level of empathy that enables them to connect in ways with others that allow them to glean ideas and understandings far beyond their strength areas.

T-shaped people are multi-dimensional individuals, who are both deep and wide.

To better engage creativity and innovation within and throughout our organizations, it is not only in the processes we engage, but our ability to increase the capabilities of those within. We have to build up and strengthen not only the ‘horizontal’ but the ‘vertical’ capacities of those we lead.

If we want more ideas, more creativity, more innovation, we have to bring and build up more “T-shaped people” at all levels of our organizations.

When you work outside your strengths, you have a tendency to cast off preconceived ideas and notions that can stifle creativity and innovation…


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