Finding X

Marty Neumeier

C Companies are quickly learning that a post-graduate degree offers no guarantee of real-world innovation skills. That’s why, in design-driven organizations with multi-disciplinary teams, there’s an ongoing search for “T-shaped” people. A Tshaped person is someone who has a strong descender (the vertical stroke of the T) and a well-developed crossbar (the horizontal stroke). The descender represents deep experience in a certain discipline, and the crossbar represents the ability to work with people across disciplines. Like rock bands, creative groups need specialists who can contribute something unique to the collaboration. The last thing they need is I-shaped people—specialists who have useful skills but don’t connect with others.

But rock bands and creative groups tend to be unproductive until they find one more member: an X-shaped person. This is the one whose main role—though not the only role—is to bring the group together to facilitate progress toward a goal. X-shaped people are rare, because they usually have to prove their worth first by mastering a discipline. The leadership gene is an extra gene, a skill on top of a skill. For example, John Lassiter has been a great creative leader for Pixar, but first he had to develop his credibility and deep-domain expertise by working in the trenches as an animator.

When X-shaped people gather the right T-shaped people, magic can happen. A surprising number of people will volunteer to dream together and work together if the goal is bold enough and the leader well respected. This is especially true in an age of virtual collaboration. Anyone who has watched the exponential growth of Wikipedia can sense the power of X/T collaboration. While contributions to Wikipedia are voluntary, nothing would have happened without the passionate facilitation of its founder, Jimmy Wales.

Today there’s a new method of collaboration that takes advantage of X/T creativity. Swarming, as it was originally termed by the military, is a method for attacking a problem or a project from a number of angles at once. Rather than structure a project as a linear exercise, the swarming method unleashes the power of simultaneous collaboration. It lets you jumpstart the project by bringing a variety of minds together at the start, then tap the talents of a wide range of disciplines throughout the process.

Let’s say you manage a design firm or an internal marketing department. As soon as you get a significant project, you might embark on the usual process of gathering executive interviews, doing customer research, brainstorming concepts, putting some initial thoughts on paper, making prototypes, testing them, refining them, and finally producing them. Because the steps are linear, each one depends on the one before, and the whole process might take months. Swarming, by contrast, lets you interview, research, brainstorm, sketch, and prototype in parallel, with each activity informing the other, while the team quickly builds up a rich understanding of the project’s possibilities. Not only is it faster, but it skirts the danger of playing “telephone”—the children’s game in which one kid whispers something quickly a neighbor, who whispers it to the next neighbor down the line, who whispers it to the next neighbor, and so on, until “dancing on the lawn” becomes “Mrs. Johnson’s dog.” With swarming, the project has a better chance to come through in its purest, most focused form.

But let me be clear about X/T collaboration. A team is only as good as the skills of the individuals in it. While you can learn a lot from working with great people, your value to the team comes from the quality of individual effort. Whether a T or an X, you still have to develop your own skills, create your own thought processes, and spend time alone in the “dragon pit”—the space between what is and what could be. In the dragon pit, a master’s degree won’t help you. Only mastery itself.

But mastery of what? I suggest five high-level skills, or metaskills, that aren’t taught in school. These include feeling, seeing, dreaming, making, and learning. When these five metaskills are applied to specific tasks and goals, they turn ordinary work into extraordinary work. They also turn T-shaped people into X-shaped people, who can then catalyze innovation across the company.

I’ve put together a little test to measure the relative strengths of your metaskills. My goal is to build a large enough database to correlate skill patterns with professional roles.

Newsletter

Sign up to receive content from our “Think” leaders: