Innovation and Human Capabilities

Guest Post: by Ralph-Christian Ohr

John Steen wrote a series of  posts on why experts and crowds usually miss disruptive innovation and how to use networks to tap expertise and knowledge. I’d like to expand these thoughts a bit more towards the question: what’s the role of human capabilities in innovation? For elaboration, I’m going to combine two concepts I’ve recently come across:

In a terrific post, Nicholas M. Donofrio, Kauffman Senior Fellow and retired EVP of Innovation and Technology, IBM, comments on the need for transformation of human innovation capabilities:

“The innovation that matters now – the innovation that we’re all waiting for, even if we don’t know it – is the one that unlocks the hidden value that exists at the intersection of deep knowledge of a problem and intimate knowledge of a market, combined with your knowledge, your technology, and your capability … whoever you are, whatever you can do, whatever you bring to the table.”

“The kind of people who will be best able to seize these opportunities are those I call “T-shaped” as opposed to “I-shaped.” I-shaped people have great credentials, great educations, and deep knowledge – deep but narrow. The geniuses who win Nobel prizes are “I-shaped,” as are most of the best engineers and scientists. But the revolutionaries who have driven most recent innovation and who will drive nearly all of it in the future are “T-shaped.” That is, they have their specialties – areas of deep expertise – but on top of that they boast a solid breadth, an umbrella if you will, of wide-ranging knowledge and interests. It is the ability to work in an interdisciplinary fashion and to see how different ideas, sectors, people, and markets connect. Natural-born “T’s are perhaps rare, but I believe people can be trained to be T-shaped. One problem is that our educational system is still intent on training more “I’s. We need to change that.”

There are two consequences out of that: I-shaped experts need to transform towards T-shaped in order to thrive in the future. Moreover, companies need to align human resources and structures, so that the overall organization is able to act T-shaped.

Excellent posts by Tim Kastelle, Paul Hobcraft and Sheldon Laube have been published on the concept of the three innovation horizons – each of them is very worth reading. In this framework, Horizon 1 defines the current business, Horizon 2 a related business and Horizon 3 a completely new business that could disrupt the existing business. All of the authors conclude that skills and approach are different for each of the innovation horizons. This also affects the profile of deployed human innovation resources. As we move along the innovation timeline from Horizon 1 towards Horizon 3, a primarily I-shaped capability needs to change in favor of a pronounced T-shaped skill.

Let’s have a look at the three stages and required human innovation capabilities:

Horizon 1 represents the company’s core businesses today. It involves implementing innovations that improve your current operations. People most familiar with the needs of the existing customers and deployed technologies are in the best position to identify opportunities for incremental improvements. Here, experts with a deep knowledge in their respective field of activity are valuable and mandatory to drive these improvements. Incremental innovation is linked to current domain as it optimizes the already existing. It’s primarily related to further deepening existing knowledge and expertise in the current field of business activity.

Horizon 2 includes innovations that extend current competencies into new, related markets and/or technologies. Novel market/technology combinations require a connection of knowledge from diverse fields and functions. In addition to deep expertise in the respective fields, the integration of these knowledge domains gains of importance. Integrators need to be comfortable with acting at the intersection of disciplines and knowledge domains. These knowledge brokers are not just multidisciplinary and socially adaptable, but also exhibit other special psychological traits. They are highly effective in bridging clusters/silos and leverage knowledge flows and connections. According to Rowan Gibson, organizations often fail to implement those bridging structures:

“There are fixed reporting lines, committee groups, task forces, and so forth. Companies tend to consign innovation to a small cadre of ‘experts’ in specialized departments, and they end up having the same people talking to the same people, year after year, so they lose that conversational richness. In many ways, the organizational chart actually inhibits rather than increases the chances of making random, serendipitous connections.”

Horizon 3 consists of nascent business ideas and opportunities that could be future growth engines. These innovations have a potential to change industries and disrupt markets. In order to tap this potential, a further capability is required: the ability to question assumptions and to take different angles. Experts tend to assign too much weight to their own viewpoint and seem to be less able to adjust to, or even consider, other perspectives. Or as John Steen puts it: Expertise is valuable, but it also comes with a cost in terms of existing commitments to old ideas. In an excellent post Don Sull comments on this phenomenon:

“The human mind is hard-wired to reinforce existing maps, even in the face of dis-confirming evidence. Psychologists have documented a depressingly long list of cognitive biases that distort how people process new information and prevent them from noticing when established mental models break down. The “confirmation bias” refers to our tendency to notice data that confirms existing assumptions, and while ignoring or discrediting information which challenges our assumptions. When faced with data that doesn’t jibe with existing assumptions, people typically ignore it, discredit it, or force it to fit their model.”

He further suggests to increase the odds of spotting opportunities by exploring anomalies, or surprising outcomes that deviate from what is expected to happen. Anomalies may signal an external shift or indicate where initial assumptions are wrong.

Along the three horizons of innovation, the requirements for human innovation capabilities change. While common I-shaped experts are predominant for exploiting the current business (Horizon 1), they need to be enriched by complementary skills for exploring activities (Horizon 2 and 3). More radical innovation requires structures enabling knowledge flows, rather than keeping knowledge stocks. Crucial human capabilities concern making novel connections of ideas, the ability to overcome myopia as well as the integration of different angles. In addition to conventional experts, more T-shaped innovators are crucial to bridge and connect domains. Moreover, they are supposed to have the skill to create new meanings by combining diverse perspectives and questioning the status quo.

Tim’s Note: Ralph is a major contributor to the discussion of innovation on twitter. Several of us have been encouraging him to start writing more about it, because he has a great combination of theory and practical experience in the field.  We’re very pleased that we’re able to host this post by Ralph.

Experienced innovation management and corporate development professional. Consulting on organizational and personal capabilities for high innovation performance. Integrative thinker. T-shaped. Author of the Integrative Innovation blog. Follow him on Twitter @ralph_ohr.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

37 thoughts on “Innovation and Human Capabilities

  1. Hi

    I am a UK university student currently on a years placement. I have to undertake my dissertation based on my placement company. I want to focus on innovation – and was wondering if I would be able to get some advice from you on potential topics?

    Many thanks

  2. Ralph-
    Great post. I agree with your viewpoints and so no contest from me there :-). Instead, I will just augment your thoughts with some of my own based on my experience and what I advice.

    I concur with the “I”-shaped and “T”-shaped folks. This might be a semantic discussion, but I would personally add another category to this – the “H”-shaped folks. What differentiates the “T” from the “H” (imo) is that the former has deep expertise in an area and a solid breadth on a wide-ranging topics to successfully work in an interdiscipliniary mode, where as the latter might not have deep knowledge of any area but are astute enough to realize the benefits/innovation possibilities of linking two disparate areas. Meaning, I see the T-shaped folks actually working in the trenches across many disciplines; the H-shaped folks gets their high from kick-starting the possibilities from a “linkage” of relatively unrelated disciplines by connecting the right folks (in most cases the T-shaped folks from these areas) but then move on to find new linkages. Both T and H are needed from a long-term innovation point of view. Anyway, just a thought. :-)

    Agree that most organizations don’t have the proper bridging structures and Sull’s comment on cognitive biases. In this regard, I always remember a quote from Schein – “If you have been trained to think in a certain way and are a member of a group that thinks the same way, how can you imagine changing to a new way of thinking?”. Most organizations fail to put in place a process that (a) provides their employees with a multi-discipliniary knowledge base and skill-set and (b) creates a sand-box for employees to build & test their multi-disciplinary lego thoughts, and (c) constantly monitors the organizational culture and keep it in tune with the changing social and market conditions.

    And lastly, I think that innovation, strategy, and leadership/culture are like triplets. You cannot wish for innovation to grow into ‘Horizon-3’ adulthood while keeping strategy and leadership/culture in the toddler stage. All of them have to nurtured in tandem and the most successful firms will be those where all three are of the same age. This is a topic in itself.

    Sorry – my comments turned out to be a bit longer than I expected :-).


  3. Great post Ralph!

    It’s great that you bring this up because we’re at a point in time where knowledge boundaries are blurring. As you mentioned, moving from Horizon 1 to 3 the specialist mentality (stocks) or I-shaped people become less relevant. Knowledge has been set free if you will (flows) with the rise of social technologies and makes new knowledge creation less restricted.

    There are some smart people that argue that we need more I-shaped ( people because of the predictable skills they bring to the table but this also shines a light on why radical innovation is so rare. T-shaped capabilities are rare and you might only need a few T-shaped people and a whole lot of I-shaped people to make radical innovation happen.

    * Here’s another argument on T from a designers POV (

    I don’t think we can do without specialized knowledge entirely, so the question is how do we move from I to T without alienating specialized knowledge or how do we combine both?

    Welcome your thoughts :)

  4. First of all I’d like to compliment Tim & John for getting Ralph to blog. Well done & thanks for making it happen :)

    Hi Ralph,

    This is a great post. I specifically like how you connect thinking about innovation horizons and the characteristics of the people involved (or leading?).

    I also like both prior comments. Ned Kumar makes a good point that one also need H-shaped people, being people who are able to connect ideas, practices and knowledge (flows) from different area’s of expertise..

    I’d like to add another element (I think we all agree on btw, but is not mentioned here): apart from the need for I, T and H-shaped people, we also need creative (right-brain) minds as well as analytical (left-brain) minds in the innovation game.. Both are needed in all steps of the innovation game as well as in all of the horizons..because innovation is not only about generating (creative and new) ideas…

    Another interesting element, imho, is the characteristics of Customers and/or partners you’d like to involve into the innovation process. Donna Hoffman has done some interesting research on “personality traits” of these co-creators, she calls “emergent customers”. You can find it here: (pdf)

    To conclude: forming the right team and involving the right people doesn’t look that easy, and it probably isn’t.. One thing is clear to me: it’s probably best not to exclude too many people.. Ensuring that is not easy. How many times did you not hear: “no, that’s not his responsibility” or “no, she doesn’t understand that” or “no, they don’t need to know (yet)” when organizing your first meeting to solve a problem?

    Great post Ralph.. you got me thinking & I like that :)

    Thx Wim

  5. This has been an interesting discucssion here – and for that thanks to Ralph, Tim & John.

    Wim – thanks for bringing up the analytical component into the mix, you are absolutely right about that. I am always amazed at the number of firms that do not yet have a good analytical foundation set up. And while we always talk about the “creative” part, it is very rarely I have seen somone bringing out the role of quantitative analysis in innovation. No matter how creative your organization is, analytics is supremely critical for identifying holes, prioritizing ideas, discarding failures or semi-successes, and if nothing, just making sense of the information flood drowning us nowadays.

    One thing to remember here is that – Innovation by itself does not feed your stomach. It has to be viable, marketable, profitable, and sustainable….and that is where anaytics come in. Of course, having grown up in hard-core analytical world for over a decade my opinions are not biased at all :-).

    Tim – Here is my take on the ‘beyond T’ discussion.

    When I think of these shapes, I am thinking of domains and not vis-a-vis a particular skillset. Now having said that, I don’t see why we cannot apply the I/T shapes to talk about people within a domain and in relation to the various skillset within that domain. I think this is where the designdialogues article is coming from (at least my interpretation based on the statement “But T-shaped expertise can be isolating, as the focus remains on vertical skills but not domain knowledge”).

    As to your question about how my “H” people map on to the wheel — well, it does not. The H-type people I am talking about are the ‘wheel -makers’ and not part of the wheel. For most part, these are the folks who can identify which Ts should come together for a certain problem at hand/project to make that a success or to generate the most value.

    Does that make sense? These are points that can have a whole discussion around it. Maybe one of these days, I will put all my thoughts down into more detail :-)


  6. Thanks for that Ned. If you want someplace to post further thoughts on this, I’d be happy to put them up here. :-)

    The post that I’m working on currently (which this one replaced for yesterday) is actually thinking about some of the leadership issues that you raise in your first comment…

  7. Thanks Tim – sincerely appreciate your offer. If you know of any “innovative” device that can translate thoughts to a blog post, I would like to know about it :-). Seriously though, I will try to put something on paper when I get some time.

    And looking forward to your post.

  8. Wim, Jorge, Ned, John and Tim: Thanks so much for all your great comments, incl. the valuable links!

    I’m really glad my post has resonated and raised this interesting discussion.

    In one hour I’m leaving to Sardinia for one week. Hopefully, I will have some internet access in the hotel there to catch up ((not sure so far ;-). Otherwise, I will reply to your comments after my return.

    In brief: I like the “beyond T” – discussion very much. And have some time now to think about it more in detail 😉 Will get back to you soon!


  9. Great post Ralph,

    One thing that I think is often overlooked is that everyone is really a T shaped person. However, very few people are T shaped in their professional lives and that’s really where the problem lies.

    In the end, I think it’s really a management problem. Managers are usually of two types:

    1. Those that see their employees as extensions of themselves. They view subordinates main function as carrying out their orders.

    2. Those that see themselves as servants of their staff. These people see it as their responsibility to actualize the full potential of their people.

    I think the latter type of manager is much more likely to have T shaped people, because they are encouraged to explore their potential professionally, not just in their outside pursuits.

    – Greg

  10. Jamie :Hi
    I am a UK university student currently on a years placement. I have to undertake my dissertation based on my placement company. I want to focus on innovation – and was wondering if I would be able to get some advice from you on potential topics?
    Many thanksJamie

    Hi Jamie, innovation is a wide field. What about discussing with your placement company first, which issues – ideally related to innovation – they would like to get solved. Then decide how to approach this in a dissertation.

    Regards, Ralph

  11. Thanks again for your great comment, Ned. I’m glad you concur with the post.

    As already mentioned, your introduction of an additional H-shaped innovator is quite appealing. I think it coincides with my perspective that the horizontal part of the “T” – which stands for integration, linkage and connection – becomes increasingly dominant as we move towards radical innovation.

    This can be very well exemplified with the cross-industry approach, where analogies from other fields become adapted to the company’s field of business. Another example is Verganti’s “Design Driven Networks”:
    In this case, different “Interpreters” need to be integrated and combined in order to come up with novel ideas. This surely requires a “connecting skill” as you descibe it.

    However, I think the innovator needs to remain “earthed” in the targeted field of business – which is represented by the vertical “T” part. Otherwise he doesn’t recognize the restrictions for the feasibility and/or the subsequent execution. I think that issue is quite well addressed in the posts provided by Jorge.

    Feel free to share your thoughts on this.

    Cheers, Ralph

  12. Again, thanks for having provided these valuable posts on that topic, Jorge!

    I like your conclusion on the first post – particularly in view of the fact that the major portion of innovation in companies is incremental, usually well above 50%. That means, a significant amount of I-shaped experts are needed. On the other hand, the human resources tend to determine the outcome.

    This emphsizes well that resources need to be planned (and developed) in accordance with the targeted innovation outcome. Which in turn depends on the company’s strategic innovation portfolio (= innovation horizons).

    As already mentioned to Ned before, I also concur with you on the second point: innovation activities need to remain “earthed” to the targeted industry – this requires specialized knowledge. But you’re absolutely right in saying that the actual challenge is given by properly balancing the different skills required.

    Excellent comment, Jorge – thanks!

    Cheers, Ralph

  13. Almost forgot: I agree with your thoughts on organizational requirements and culture, Ned. And I definitely support Tim’s idea to get you on the blog in order to extend these ideas 😉

  14. Hello Ralph!

    Congratulations for the excellent article hosted here at this great blog!
    With this clear text on of the subject I could not agree more with the development and conclusion:”T-shaped innovators are crucial to bridge and connect domains”.
    It is really necessary that innovators be T-shaped to explore ideas residents in fringe of several disciplines. I am a believer in the notion that the best results arise when interdisciplinary teams pretend solve problems in a sustainable manner. It is the example of their work in some hospitals with the diversity that the environment offers.
    The pity is that in many team’s work some people does not give due importance to T- shaped and continuing to invest in “I” as think is the case of an Portuguese foundation who wants to be one of the best neuroscience research centers in the world. In this case there are resources, financial (the heritage of one of the richest men in Portugal) and human resources (actually hiring scientists around the world).
    It is this the good way? Will they be T-shaped?
    These are my two cents to try to convince you to write more!

  15. Wim, I appreciate your valuable comment – one great step towards a fruitful exchange between SocCRM/ marketing and innovation. I think we already discussed this before 😉

    I fully agree with you that it’s not just about combining different skills, but also about balancing analytical vs. creative thinking/working style throughout the innovation stages.
    The following BW article I came across some time ago, might be a good read for you on this topic:

    You also raise a very important issue which I haven’t covered in this post on purpose: the customer integration in the innovation process. Thanks for pointing to the great paper on “emergent customers” which seems to be an appropriate type of customer for innovation purposes. In return you may have a look to the following paper, particularly dealing with “User involvement competence for radical innovation”:
    This indicates that it’s of crucial importance to
    – identify the right customers for integration
    – align customer integration with the innovation purpose
    Further issues are:
    – method of customer integration (direct vs. indirect)
    – choosing the customer integration point in time
    – defining the customer contribution (requirements/needs vs. solutions)
    Overall, customer integration seems to be quite complex and its approach surely varies across the different innovation horizons as well.

    I’m just thinking this topic would be very worth being covered by a dedicated post. In case, you will be my first choice as reviewer 😉

    Thanks, Ralph

  16. Thanks for your comment, Greg. Glad you like the post!

    It’s great you light this issue from the human resource development oerspective. I entirely agree with you that it’s a leadership task to nurture people’s potential. Bosses surely determine behavior / attitude of their employees. And this, in turn, significantly determines the outcome.

    Your statement is pretty much in line with the claim to educate more “Ts”. Though, there might be a natural preference for every human towards the horizontal or vertical bar, I think.

    Cheers, Ralph

  17. Jose, I appreciate your comment as well as your spur to writing more posts. I learn that lesson from you – although I’m pretty sure I would never hit your frequency of writing good posts 😉

    I think it really depends on the task and context whether to deploy Is or Ts – one is not better than the other. But requirements in particular fields, such as innovation, are shifting. Particularly, during execution of ideas the Is remain of great importance as they’re familiar with details of products, technologies, markets etc.

    Let me know if you have anything to add.

    Thanks, Ralph

  18. Hi Ralph
    I do not put the slightest doubt about the importance of (I) quite the contrary. What I think is that often fails to horizontal (-), (v) or (W) on top of the vertical (I). Is this component in my opinion that complements without duplicating the work of research.
    It is this, the big advantage of open innovation when universities combine their efforts with the business world or when we speak of the advantages of interdisciplinary teams to achieve results. It is needed that (I) be able to understand the needs and constraints of the environment for where he drives his work and the “horizontal competencies” is that allow this dialogue and understanding.
    Probably as we evolve into knowledge and creativity we will be redesigning the (I) and the (T) until we get to the (O) Omnipresent and Omnipotent! ?
    Thank you, Jose

  19. Ralph,
    My apologies for the very delayed reply. Been travelling a lot recently and I was sure I replied to your ‘reply’ but somehow it fell through the cracks.

    Overall I agree with your viewpoints. The only point where I still am grappling is the argument from you/Jorge that innovators need to be “earthed” in the targeted discipline. Here is why I am struggling to accept that as a defacto statement. When I (personally) think of innovation I like to view it as tangibles, ideas, and/or process innovations. For tangibles, I would agree that more likely than not the innovators are earthed in their domains. However, for an idea innovation perspective I feel that one can be innovative coming totally from outside – and it is for the folks within the domain (who are earthed so to speak) to take it, apply the constraints, and make it realistic.

    Again, thanks for a wonderful conversation. I definitely consider you, Jorge, Jose et al. as the innovation gurus and myself as a pupil still learning this multi-faceted topic.


  20. Thanks for your reply, Ned. I think it’s a good point. Your approach is similar to a cross-industry approach: Abstraction – Analogy – Adaption. Ideas from outside the industry are adapted to drive innovation. However, typically, specific constraints are already applied during analogy phase. That means, creativity and ideation are not “out of the box” but targeted at the subsequent field of application. I think, this process needs to be accompanied by people related this field. It’s difficult to de-couple ideation completely from implementation. But I agree with you that the degree of de-coupling is very high for radical ideas.

    Here is another good post by Tim on this: Constraints Make Us More Creative:

    Feel honored, but you definitely belong to the “guru group” :-) Your comments are extremely valuable, and I’ve learned much from them so far! Looking forward to your post somewhen 😉

    Cheers, Ralph

  21. Hi Ralph!
    Interesting article you have there.
    I´m a HRM student who is writing an essay about how HR system can support radical innovation at a product development department. Do you have any tips of some good reading about this?

    Best regards

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