Do You Have What it Takes to Be a T-Shaped Founder?

innovation alphabet

One of the hidden treasures of Toronto’s public library system is the Osborne Collection of Early Children’s Books, tucked away in an unassuming building on the south edge of the University of Toronto campus. As a doctoral student, I savored the time I spent there, combing through stacks of century-old picture books and calling those hours of sheer delight “research” into Victorian culture.

A hundred years from now, I wonder what children’s books in the Osborne Collection will say about today’s culture, with our constant thrust toward innovation. In my mind’s eye, I can imagine an Alphabet for Innovators, with illustrations to embody the qualities it takes to develop an innovation skill set.

A is for Agile

B is for Bold

C is for Curious

D is for Disruptive… 

Given the amount of thought that today’s business leaders and educators have given to the attitudes and skills required for innovation, it wouldn’t be hard to flesh out the alphabet.

E is for Energetic

F is for Financially Literate

G is for Go-Getter

H is for Happy to Fail

I is for Insistent

J is for Jealous of Time

K is for Knowledgeable

L is for Leader…

It might be tough, though, to pick out the top letter in the alphabet of innovator competencies. Name five successful innovators, and no two of them will share the same identical cluster of attitudes, skills, and behaviors. 

M is for Many-sided

N is for Networker

O is for Open-minded

P is for Passionate

Q is for Questioning

R is for Resilient

S is for Self-aware

That’s why the ongoing quest to identify the Ultimate Innovator Skill Set is ultimately fruitless. Rather than trying to describe the exact skill set that innovators need, it’s far more helpful to recognize the way that different kinds of abilities complement each other in the profile of a successful innovator or innovative team. 

T is for T-shaped

Since the 1990s, management gurus and academics have described the ideal innovator as a T-shaped person

To my mind, that makes T the most important letter in the innovator’s alphabet. 

The competency profile of a T-shaped innovator is based on a strong set of “vertical” skills, deep expertise in one or more technical domains. (Increasingly, complex problems are requiring an individual to master a few different fields of speciality.[1]) 

To complement these specialized competencies, a T-shaped individual also branches out across nontechnical skills, such as communication, collaboration, business acumen, and leadership. These “horizontal” competencies allow them to apply their specialty skills to various situations.  

Horizontal capabilities—the skills, attitudes, and behaviors that form the crossbar to the T shape—make the difference between great ideas that stay in the lab and those that transform the world. 

Strengths in areas such as communication and leadership facilitate what researchers call “boundary crossing.” They enable people with specialized knowledge to share their expertise with collaborators doing innovative work in adjacent fields. They also make it possible for innovators to interact productively with colleagues whose vertical skill set lies in the business domain.

A T-shaped innovator can talk comfortably with lab partners and business partners. 

They easily “translate” the concepts and jargon of their technical field into simple, clear language that makes sense to nonexperts. 

They use systems thinking to view their technical goals and achievements within a larger framework of trends, actors, and relationships. 

And they readily consider a situation from different perspectives, turning it over in their mind so they can interpret it through different lenses.

U is for Universalist

V is for Visionary

W is for Worker

X is for eXtreme

Y is for Yes-oriented

Z is for Zealous

As you think about successful innovators you know, you can likely recognize their T-shaped skill set. The key to success isn’t necessarily the specific skills or personality traits an innovator possesses but rather the way they complement technical expertise with breadth of knowledge, experience, and ability. 

For example, an introverted scientist with a PhD in chemistry might land a deal with an industry partner thanks to their strong listening skills and business acumen. Another researcher, with a background doing industry research in mechanical engineering, might attract investment through their dynamic presentation skills and their ability to use design thinking.

Similar results, but different competencies. What successful innovators share is not an alphabet of prescriptive strengths but rather the overall strength of the T-shaped diagram.

Yes, we can point to common themes in the T shapes of noteworthy inventors and entrepreneurs. Communication is certainly one of those as it’s impossible to share knowledge and collaborate without communicating clearly and persuasively. But to get your invention out into the world and make the impact you want to make, you don’t need to speak or write in exactly the same way your colleague does. Nor do you need to lead their way, strategize their way, or build relationships their way.

The beauty of the T-shaped diagram is its flexibility. Do a quick Google search of “T-shaped professional,” and you’ll find the concept being applied across a wide variety of industries, from software development and engineering (where it got its start) to botany, water management, and law.

When you embrace the T-shaped model for yourself and your team, you give yourself the freedom to define and build the skill set that will best leverage your vertical skills. You get to create your own Alphabet for Innovators, to your own rhyme and rhythm.

Curious about how to identify and boost your communication strengths? Send me an email so we can find a time to chat:


[1] Bridgstock, R. ( 2015, July 19). KEY-shaped people, not T-shaped people – disciplinary agility and 21st century work. Future Capable blog.


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