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  • Danny

Moving On Up

Updated: Oct 6, 2023

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It's September 13th, 1993, and British band M People release their hit single "Moving on Up." Climbing the charts, it becomes their most successful song, reaching the number 2 spot in the UK. You might wonder "What does this have to do with innovation, employee experience, design, or culture?", how does all that link to Hippos...

Surprisingly, it might have more to do with these topics than you think!

Intrigued by the idea of "moving on up" from the last post several readers recently reached out on LinkedIn, asking where to start when it comes to either creating an anti-fragile innovation team from scratch or leveling up what they currently have. So I decided to pivot from what I was going to write and address this instead. (Give the people what they want)

Before we even get into behaviours, methods and mindsets you will first need to start with something I call Team Accounting which starts off by first making sense of the individuals in the team. By asking yourself... 'are my team

"Stagnant Sloths or Hungry Hippos"

There is a lot more in my approach to Team Accounting, which I will share in future newsletters, but for now, I just want you to get familiar with the term before I show you any criteria for it. First, it starts with awareness.

In our ever-changing world, there's a growing demand for individuals who can remix and, as M-People would say, continue "moving on up" their skill sets to bring a non-linear, expansive approach to organisational challenges. In the '80s, IDEO's Tim Brown endorsed the term "T-shaped person." Fast forward to 2020, I stood on a stage in Greece and told everyone to ignore Big Tim, and instead told many CPOs and HRDs that using the term "T-shaped people" was outdated. In actual fact to create a truly interdisciplinary team, you're going to need much more than a T-shaper. (This is a drum I've been banging since 2018, talking about the need for L&D team to move to Internal EX problem-solving and design teams that blend Human centred design, Product, Service and Experience design is the only way forward.. but that's for another day. Feel free to look back at My linkedin timeline for them posts haha)

Now back in 2023, I saw a LinkedIn post with a T-shaped person illustration in it, the "thought leader" had labeled it as the next big thing, and it received 8,000+ likes. I found this quite worrying. I think many people might be mistaking the past for the future or as philosopher George Santayana once said:

"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it"

To my eye, the future isn't in T-shaped people, we have evolved since then, the real value is in M and X-shaped people, individuals whose passion is to become a polymath. It's at this point you are maybe thinking what's a polymath, don't worry I was the same, below is the TLDR version

TLDR: A Polymath is someone whose knowledge stretches many different fields and who uses that knowledge to connect different ideas and insights to solve complex problems

While only a small percentage of people will ever achieve polymath status, the journey itself is the secret sauce and the biggest difference between teams that explore (innovative teams) and teams that execute (BAU teams)

Below is a breakdown of the different shapes of people I've seen while observing and managing various innovation teams. As you read through the below try to compare the shapes to people in your team, I always find it handy to ask myself what shape I would be right now, I wonder what shape my team would think I am. Okay let's jump in:

I - shapers: Deeply knowledgeable in one core field (shown in the vertical) often however they have little desire to expand not because they are lazy but because they are comfortable and happy where they are similar to a Sloth. Often when change comes they can't keep up with the T-shapers and are usually the first ones for the chop.

T - shapers: are the next iteration, experts in one field (the vertical) and curious about other areas, they learn to collaborate and communicate across disciplines and slowly increase the breadth of knowledge in different fields (shown in the horizontal). Many T-shapers evolve into M-shapers or hungry hippos unless they become comfy or a life event happens.

M - shapers: These hungry hippos have moved beyond T-shaper, gaining knowledge in various fields (seen in the multiple verticals) They excel at blending, communicating and demonstrating their skills across various verticals

X - shapers: With the skill sets and knowledge of M-shapers, they apply their knowledge more meaningfully (shown in the crossing of verticles) These people can solve human and technical problems through interdisciplinary thinking. Close your eyes and think of the best manager you ever had, the chances are they were a solid X-shaper

Polymath: Rare and exceptional, they have deep expertise in various, often unrelated areas, and excel at problem-solving and driving innovation they can often see what others can't. Some famous Polymaths:

  • Leonardo Da Vinci

  • Nikola Tesla

  • Benjamin Franklin

  • Marie Curie

  • Mary Somerville

  • Rosalind Franklin

Here's the rub:

Nearly all teams won't have the next Da Vinci or Curie, however, when you distill down what the essence is of all these polymaths it's that they have this ongoing hungry and wicked curiosity to know more and stretch their thinking beyond what they know only in one field. Just as a chef wouldn't try to bake a cake in a cold oven you shouldn't try and drive innovation with a team that doesn't want it in the first place. Now of course you can help develop them and all that good stuff but it ultimately will come down to

  • Do you buy the talent or build it in-house

  • Does the current team have the will to want to be stretched?

Now before you have a eureka moment and:

  • Get rid of all I-shapers

  • Sign up lots of X-shapers

Let's go back to the question:

"Where to start when it comes to creating or levelling up my EX Innovation Team"

The answer is it starts with you. If you are the person heading up the team or looking at how to spin an EX innovation team up. First, you need to do some team accounting and answer some tricky questions like:

  • Do the I-shapers bring the expertise needed for the future

  • Is there an appetite to progress through the shapes

  • Do you choose to buy the skills or build the skills in house

  • What is the ratio of the team I need i.e. how many chefs vs cooks, both are needed but is what your team ratio

  • Do the I's and T's form the core of your team or are they an extension of it

My approach has always been to aim for M-shaper, they've overcome the comfort of remaining T-shaped and still want to grow. This provides the ideal balance for a team hungry for innovation and potentially creating the leaders of the future.

It is only once you have the fertile ground of the right will in your team that you can move on to skill and look at innovative behaviours, mindsets, and methods.

Any external consultant who doesn't first push you to do some team accounting before capability or upskilling is likely to be there for your money.

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