This “Outside Consultant” column by John F. McVea, associate professor in the Schulze School of Entrepreneurship at the Opus College of Business, ran in the Star Tribune on Jan. 25, 2021.
You don’t need to be an expert technologist to make a big impact in technology. Mary Grove, who worked at Google and is the managing partner of Bread & Butter Ventures, says that there is no linear route into technology venturing. Thus, as we educate students with dreams of technology it is critical that we focus on teaching them how to think, rather than teaching them what to think. For instance, when we consider the digital transformation of health care, we might conclude that, because technology may turn everything upside down, that we all need to become technologists. There is great danger in this.
What we really need to lead disruptive change are T-shaped people. T-shaped people have demonstrated knowledge and expertise in a particular field (it often doesn’t matter which area) but have the ability to collaborate across fields. They are different from I-shaped people, who are very deep in one technology, but unable to collaborate outside that expertise. They are also different from generalists: People who can collaborate but have little depth in anything.
T-shaped people are not technological experts in everything, nor should we try to make them so. But they have demonstrated critical thinking in at least one area. Thus, they have confidence to applying their critical thinking to new areas. They can quickly immerse themselves in new possibilities. They can harness the talents of I-shaped experts who deeply understand emerging technologies. They ask great questions. They are confident about what they know, and more importantly, what they do not know. They have credibility to synthesize insights across a number of fields. They understand the difference between technological capability and human needs. They realize the importance of fit between technology and environment. How many of these leadership skills require technological expertise? None.
To develop the T-shaped mindset, start with who you are uniquely, what you know uniquely, what you can do uniquely, and build up from there. Partnerships are key. Find people who complement your skills and weaknesses. Take small risks and learn from failure. Try something and see. If it works, do some more. If it doesn’t, try something different.
John F. McVea is an associate professor in the Schulze School of Entrepreneurship at the University of St. Thomas Opus College of Business.