The concept of a “T-shaped person,” first made famous by McKinsey & Company, is prevalent in the innovation literature because it proves extraordinarily useful. A person is T-shaped when she possesses, and continually attends to, a breadth of knowledge across many fields, accompanied by a depth of knowledge in one—shallow and wide horizontal knowledge, deep and singular vertical expertise. In The Innovator’s DNA, Dyer, Gregersen, and Christensen argue that a T-shaped person is well equipped to innovate because she is able to make surprising connections across industries or areas of knowledge. This happens in two ways: 1) by importing an idea from another field into an area of deep knowledge, or 2) by exporting an idea from an area of expertise into one of the broad fields in which her knowledge is shallower. 

Armed with this heuristic, I have started to notice T-shaped innovators everywhere, the best of them exhibiting carefully honed strength along both axes. My colleague Fiona Bond is one such person. Pairing depth of expertise in cultural matters with breadth of knowledge recently acquired in pursuit of an MBA, she has transformed the arts scene in her community and is using that transformation as fuel for a growing local economy.

Initially, I attributed her success to an ability to associate along the two dimensions of the T. Perhaps, I suspected, she was also riding a wave of economic growth and encouraging creatives to jump on board. 

Curiously, though, observing Fiona’s work over time caused me to reconsider the T-shaped metaphor as it applies social innovation. Or, more accurately, Fiona caused me to wonder whether being T-shaped is sufficient for effective innovation in the social sector. She seemed to be doing something more. So I started observing effective social innovators in a variety of other contexts, and engaging in discussion on the topic with a variety of social sector stakeholders.

What I’ve learned is that social innovators are in fact different, insofar as they cultivate a third dimension—what I’d call a z-axis that intersects the x- and y-axes of regular T-shaped innovators. This third dimension is a social dimension, one that requires just as much emphasis as the other two. 

At Fiona’s invitation, I recently attended a launch event for “The Waco 52,” a juried art exhibition at the Texas State Capitol that celebrated Waco’s newly acquired “cultural district” status. The 52 pieces on exhibit also found themselves on the faces of a deck of playing cards, which went on sale around town to help fund new arts ventures. Beyond the extraordinary artwork, what was most striking that evening was the diversity of folks gathered with vested interest—artists, lawmakers, business leaders, nonprofit executives, and university officials, among others. The exhibition catalogue featured support letters from a former US president-turned-artist and two home improvement celebrities whose TV show fixes up old homes in and around Waco. The thread running through each of these people and each of these sectors was Fiona Bond’s ability to pull them together—her ability to leverage that third dimension. 

Prior to that, in an effort to assemble teams of my university colleagues around sustained commitments to wicked problems—to become social innovators, that is—I had deployed the T-shaped metaphor in spades. Wouldn’t it be great, I proposed, to assemble teams of T-shaped people around common causes? For example, wouldn’t tackling such a complex problem as the alarming numbers of children leaving unaccompanied from Central America’s Northern Triangle—bound for the Texas border by way of a treacherous and unforgiving terrain—benefit from the assembly of curious and well-read political scientists, healthcare workers, engineers, social workers, anthropologists, and lawyers. Each of these experts can speak to a different aspect of this problem’s wickedness, positioning expertise at points along the migrant’s journey—from the complex factors that push children from their homes, to the long stretches of desert with little water access, to the emotional, spiritual, and legal crises that await children along the journey. Teams of T-shaped people, properly assembled, might be able to account for the complexities of this issue in ways that lead to disruptive innovation.

While I still believe this is the case, I have learned that the social dimension is equally important—not just for me, in assembling these teams, but for all of the stakeholders taking part in the Social Innovation Collaborative we run at Baylor University. BAY-SIC, as we call it, is designed to bring together diverse, and sometimes unlikely, collaborators in efforts to discover and develop innovative ways to promote human flourishing. We proceed on the belief that approaching complex problems from new angles and multiple disciplines will yield new insights and strategies. But these stakeholders encounter many barriers to collaboration, and they will continue to do so given that barriers are often unavoidable. Surely, cultivating a stronger social dimension of innovation will help. 

Let me be clear: doing so takes a lot of work. Development along the x- and y-axes of the T happens only with great intention. The “10,000 hour rule,” made famous by Malcolm Gladwell and pioneered by Anders Ericsson, posits that expertise—the vertical axis—develops only with sustained learning and practice over many years. And the “five-hour rule,” credited as a staple of today’s top business leaders, claims that top innovators all set aside an hour a day (five hours a week) to learn new things—cultivation along the horizontal axis. Developing the social dimension is no less difficult, because it is something much more robust than the development of interpersonal or “soft” skills, important as those are. Far more essential is a will and a vision to alter structural impediments and commit to “radical collaboration.”

Putting myself in Fiona’s shoes, I imagine that the task of convincing business leaders and conservative lawmakers to deploy resources in support of local art requires plenty of charisma. Even so, what strikes me as more critical is her collaborative vision—one that inspires artists, nonprofits, lawmakers, businesses, universities, and others to share in the fate of a community’s cultural life. The barriers to such radical collaboration are abundant because we are so accustomed to staying in our own lanes. And so her approach must involve developing and articulating an argument that compels many different people to extend themselves to overcome them.    

Impediments are not always external, of course. In my own university context, we like our independence. To the extent that universities organize, they do so around disciplines, which form departments. Those departments form schools, often as many as 10-15 of which populate a university, and in many cases, never the twain shall meet—or, worse yet, they openly compete with one another. I speak often with colleagues in other sectors who express similar experiences within their organizations. 

The problem is that our world’s most pressing concerns don’t conform to the stark lines of disciplines or departments, and wicked problems by their very nature can be made worse by single-method or single-discipline approaches. 

That’s why it is increasingly incumbent upon us to cultivate social innovators with the vision and fortitude to break path dependence. T-shaped innovators won’t be sufficient. What we need are social innovators who operate in 3-D.

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