The sun-shaped individual

(Yep, this is a cross post from Stuff I find interesting, but the missive grew to the point that I thought it worthwhile putting it on this blog as well.)

I stumbled across a rather interesting, and rather old (in internet terms), blog post today: T-Shaped + Sun-Shaped People by David Armano. I suppose you could say that it’s a build on the old idea of t-shaped people, folk with deep experience in one domain (their core discipline). As the post quotes, from Tim Brown at IDEO:

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 people.” They have a principal skill that describes the vertical leg of the T — they’re mechanical engineers or industrial designers. But they are so empathetic that they can branch out into other skills, such as anthropology, and do them as well. They are able to explore insights from many different perspectives and recognize patterns of behavior that point to a universal human need. That’s what you’re after at this point — patterns that yield ideas.

I’ve always found the concept of t-shaped people interesting and troubling at the same time. One the one hand their broader view provides them with some sensitivity for the problems and experience to be found in other domains. On the other, it reeks of dilettantism, as there is no rational behind their interest other than curiosity (what’s it like on the other side of the fence?). This leaves you a victim of the dogma of your core discipline, with the cross discipline stuff just window dressing.

For a while I’ve thought (and spoken) of then need to have some sort of coherent focus to our interests, something beyond the doctrine we learnt in our early twenties and which largely defines us. I think we need this focus for a few different reasons.

Firstly, it provides helps us identify the sort of problems we want to solve beyond the constraints of a well defined discipline. I’m interested in how people solve problems, which leads me to working in everything from (business) strategy down to workflow design.

Secondly, it provides you with a framework to identify and integrate new ideas and domains into your toolkit. It’s a bit like Bruce Lee’s ideas of “adopt what you can use” from Jeet Kyne Do. For years I’ve been finding, collecting, evaluating and then either integrating ideas from areas as diverse as logic and science, (bio-medical) engineering, history, philosophy (including the likes of Cicero), human factors, business theory (Michael Porter an the like) and even computer science (particularly AI). You don’t collect random ideas (a la TED), you find useful tools which integrate with and add value to your toolkit.

Thirdly, it provides you with a mechanism to cope with the deluge of information we live in today. There’s a lot of talk of the need for smart filters, which I’ve always had a problem with. Perhaps it’s my little internal John Boyd, but we shouldn’t be just throwing away valuable information. A more intelligent approach is to have a framework — a focus — which makes it easier to integrate the information into our world view. (There’s probably a whole post in this point alone.)

David’s post posited the concept of sun-shaped person, which sounds a lot like this idea of having a consistent focus.

Does this make us "sun-shaped people"?

Does this make us "sun-shaped people"?

Quoting David:

Most of us have some kind of passion in a specific area. For some—it’s a hobby or interest. For others, it’s directly related to our work. I fall into the latter category. If you were to ask me what my “passion is”—I would probably say that at the core, it’s creative problem solving. This is pretty broad and incorporates a lot of disciplines that can relate to it. But that’s the point. What if we start with our passions regardless of discipline, and look at the skills which radiate out from it the same way we think about how rays from the sun radiate warmth?

I think this makes a lot of sense, and fits in a lot more neatly with the direction the world is headed, than the concept of a t-shaped individual. Who doesn’t wear multiple hats these days? How much of your job is actually related to your job title? And don’t we all steal ideas from other disciplines?

Tying yourself to a single domain — I’m a supply chain person, I’m a techo, I do human factors — is committing yourself to doing the same thing that you did yesterday. Your marking yourself as a domain specialist. The challenge is that we seem to be entering an age where we need more generalists. Last year you worked in finance, this year your building robots, next year you might be in durable goods. Your focus, your passions, won’t have changed, but what you do day-to-day will have. That sounds a lot like the sun shaped individual to me.

Posted under: Innovation

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