The world-renowned design firm IDEO is known for hiring people described as being “t-shaped.” Here’s a quote from an interview with CEO Tim Brown explaining what that means:
“T-shaped people have two kinds of characteristics, hence the use of the letter “T” to describe them. The vertical stroke of the “T” is a depth of skill that allows them to contribute to the creative process. That can be from any number of different fields: an industrial designer, an architect, a social scientist, a business specialist or a mechanical engineer. The horizontal stroke of the “T” is the disposition for collaboration across disciplines. It is composed of two things. First, empathy. It’s important because it allows people to imagine the problem from another perspective – to stand in somebody else’s shoes. Second, they tend to get very enthusiastic about other people’s disciplines, to the point that they may actually start to practice them. T-shaped people have both depth and breadth in their skills.”
For an interdisciplinary design firm like IDEO, I’m sure you can see why the above would be important. But I also think it’s hugely important for those of us who work in the arena of the built environment.
City building projects don’t get accomplished by individuals, alone, or “I-shaped people” who don’t play well with others. They get accomplished by people with breadth in their skills and by large cohesive teams with vastly different core competencies. The notion of the individual genius is overplayed.
New buildings, for instance, typically involve a coming together of the project team (hugely diverse in and of itself), the city, the community, and other stakeholders. You can try and bully your way through that process or you can try and navigate through with empathy.
Based on the tremendous success of firms like IDEO, one could certainly argue that creativity and innovation seem to thrive more on empathy.