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3 Ways Your 'T-Shape' Helps You Collaborate

January 04, 2012

(Thaler Pekar recently collaborated with Jay Rhoderick of BizProv to deliver the opening plenary at the 2011 New Jersey Non-Profit Conference. This is an excerpt from that plenary, "Productive Partnerships: Building Trust and Creating Collaborations." In her last post, Thaler offered seven tips for sharing stories in your organization.)

T-shapedThe metaphor of the "T-shaped person" is often used by human resource professionals to describe people who possess both deep expertise and broad knowledge of other disciplines.

Tim Brown, CEO and president of Ideo, explains how his product design firm applies the concept when hiring:

"We look for people who are so inquisitive about the world that they're willing to try to do what you do. We call them 'T-shaped'. They have a principal skill that describes the vertical leg of the T.... But they are so empathetic they can branch out into other skills, such as anthropology, and do them as well [the horizontal line]. They are able to explore insights from many different perspectives and recognize patterns of behavior that point to a universal human need."

Let's consider the metaphor in more detail, focusing on how important your T-shape is to your ability to collaborate....

1. Think of the vertical part of the "T" as your core talent and the horizontal line as reflecting your interests and your curiosity in involving diverse partners. As a leader, you consistently follow your passion and talent and work to broaden your interests and knowledge. Give yourself credit for the expertise you have acquired and stand strong knowing you have a solid backbone of knowledge. This enables you to function at the heart of the T -- the sweet spot, the common ground of shared interest between you and your collaborators.

Understanding and appreciating your T-shape means no apologies for knowing more than someone else -- and no fears about someone knowing more than you do about a given topic!

2. Just as you generously share your expertise, be sure to open your arms and embrace the talent that others share with you. There is a Buddhist instruction to maintain a strong back and open heart while meditating. Appreciating your T-shape is the physical embodiment of this wisdom. Don't withdraw, hunker down, or try to exert control when a collaborator is willing to share his or her talent and experience. Let your own talent (the strong vertical leg of your T) serve as an anchor, and indulge your curiosity (the horizontal line) so that you remain open and flexible. With such a firm grounding, you're in a better position to take risks and embrace a willingness to fail.

3. Valuing your T also will keep you from spending 20 percent of your time striving for perfection and will help you focus on the 80 percent that is "good enough." Allison Fine and Beth Kanter, co-authors of The Networked Nonprofit, recommend that nonprofit organizations "Do what you do best, and network the rest."

Think of the vertical leg of your T, your backbone of expertise, as comprising 80 percent of the talent and leadership you bring to a collaboration. The knowledge and talent you figuratively embrace comprise the other 20 percent. Why stress about achieving perfection as a soloist when you're engaged in a group process? Respect your team's creativity and contributions, and contribute to the shared goal with generosity.

And, yes, with everyone contributing his or her 80 percent, the whole will be far greater than sum of the parts. The T-shape metaphor can help you see (and accept) that not everyone in a collaboration has to contribute equally at all times. Rather, the goal is to achieve a dynamic balance in terms of expertise and sharing.

So stand up, spread your arms, and open yourself to possibility! Only then will you reap the benefits of collaboration.

-- Thaler Pekar

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Thaler, I just finished writing a chapter for a book on innovation which will be coming out soon from the ARK Group. In it, I talk about the person who can stand and even thrive in the 'white spaces' between disciplines (borrowed from John Seely Brown). They are indeed people who have a deep knowledge, yet are so curious, they are constantly pushing the edges. Where you use the term 'anchor' for their deep knowledge, I use the term 'tether' which keeps them safe as they wander through the open space of ambiguity, paradox, and insight that happens between the disciplines.

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