Cross Your "Ts" For Better Innovation

By Paul Mugge, Timothy L. Michaelis and Michelle Grainger

 Editor’s note: This article is excerpted from the May-June issue of the CIMS Innovation Management Report (IMR). Paul Mugge is Director of CIMS, Michelle Grainger is its Managing Director, and Tim Michaelis is a CIMS Research Associate and doctoral candidate at N.C. State.

You probably don’t associate the phrase “well-rounded” with the letter T. But that term is a good definition of the “T-Shaped Employee,” a concept that’s gaining traction in companies—especially high-tech ones—across the globe.

The “T” symbolizes an employee who has been trained with deep technical abilities but also the soft skills—the breadth–to work well across multiple groups, company silos and different disciplines. T-Employees connect the organization and have the technical abilities needed to deliver on the ideas they generate from working with multiple stakeholders. They comprise a critical and highly sought component of any company’s innovation machine.

T-Students First

Before becoming a T-Employee, one must first be a T-Student. These are students who have been given experiential learning opportunities to work in empowered, cross-disciplinary teams, think critically and creatively about the problems presented to them, and freely express and defend their ideas.

Both universities and federal agencies are investing in programs to create T-students. For example, Cornell University has an undergraduate program called Stimulating Creativity, Entrepreneurs and Leadership Skills; the University of California-Merced is developing the first T-Shaped Management Curriculum in the nation; and Georgia Tech is taking a “One Size Does Not Fit All” approach to developing T-Students, emphasizing that some of its initiatives have a liberal art emphasis while others are STEM-intensive.

Organizations need T-shaped employeesSimilarly, federal funding agencies, a major source of prestige and resources for many of these same institutions, actively promote the development of T-Students. The new NSF Research Traineeship (NRT) program is designed to “encourage the development and implementation of bold, new and potentially transformative models for STEM graduate education training.”

The NRT program includes a Traineeship Track and an Innovations in Graduate Education (IGE) Track. Both tracks help to ensure that graduate students in research-based Master’s and Doctoral degree programs develop the necessary skills and competencies needed to succeed in a STEM career.

The total budget for these programs is up to $3.5 million over 2-5 years. With such an investment in developing T-Employees, NRT will serve as a powerful tailwind for promoting the development of T-Students and future T-Employees.

But… Do Companies Allow T-Employees to Flourish?

We at CIMS help develop future T-Employees as well. CIMS interns are routinely included in all research projects with CIMS partner organizations. Graduate student interns are offered boot camps in advanced analytics as a supplement to their compressed concentrations. And because corporate innovation is the CIMS focus, its faculty and staff help run the Poole College of Management’s Value Creation Practicum. In this program, aimed at the College’s professional MBA candidates, student teams integrated with Master’s and doctoral students from multiple NC State departments tackle the toughest innovation challenges regional companies face. They address questions like, Which markets present the best opportunity for our technology? Who are the incumbent competitors in these markets? Might these competitors also be a partner in delivering our solution?

Clearly the intention of these efforts is to better prepare T-Students for what they can expect as T-Employees working in industry and to help companies flourish as well. But do these efforts really meet the intended goals?

Business Reality Can Discourage T-Employees—and Innovation

It’s well known that the ability of companies to innovate, grow and ultimately create value for their customers is in large part due to the culture of these organizations. Yet, in their zeal to meet quarterly business goals, management’s actions can actually stifle innovation by putting unrealistic pressure on T-Employees to deliver value.

Despite significant branding efforts to present their companies as innovators, the dominant business design of large, established firms is operational excellence. Unfortunately, having new employees spend time building relationships with internal and external stakeholders is too often viewed as counter to this operational excellence mission, and managers often tend to restrict the freedom of their new T-Employees.

The structure of these organizations reflects the emphasis they put on specialization. Functional silos form around Engineering, Operations, Finance, Customer Support, etc., limiting collaboration and innovation. The innovation that does occur is still commonly thought to be the province of the R&D department.

The scorecards of these organizations—and consequentially their employee compensation plans—are tied to an array of financial measures (EBITDA, Profit, Sales Revenue, etc.) and patents that rarely become commercialized.

This focus on operational excellence can spell disaster for a T-Employee’s career. T-Employees are trained to gather feedback from internal and external stakeholders in order to perform the task given to them by management. However, these behaviors are too often seen as a nuisance, and early career T-Employees are often directed to stop asking questions and do what they are told.

Being trained and rewarded as a T-Student and then being punished as a T-Employee can create stress and ambiguity for newcomers, ultimately resulting in a strong negative effect on company culture.

Managers often don’t realize the extent to which newcomers observe their environment, talk to other employees, and try to figure out the best way to progress in their career. Research regarding this information-seeking behavior shows that within the first three months of starting a job, T-Employees form what is referred to as a psychological “contract” dictating how they should behave. Managers not cognizant of this psychological contract formation can quickly suppress the beneficial skills of a T-Employee as these new employees’ mental models begin to solidify within the first two weeks on the job. Unintentionally T-Employees often get pigeonholed early in their careers.

Likewise, risk-taking and decision-making in these organizations take a hit when these T-Employees are no longer empowered to share their opinions or be proactive in solving critical business problems. This is confounded by management’s risk-averse mentality. As a result, any innovations that occur tend to be incremental. Rarely are resources, or attention, given to big innovations–the type that create entirely new markets, which T-Employees are so eager to develop.

Healthy Culture is Key

How can management create a culture of innovation where T-Employees will flourish? The common belief is that organizational culture is too complex and no one understands how it works or how it relates to business results. But The truth is that we at CIMS have come to know how cultures work, based on over 45 years of research by different scholars and with numerous companies.

We know there’s a clear link between organizational culture and innovation, company growth, public reputation, market share, and employee engagement. Nevertheless, for some managers and indeed some companies, this truth might not be enough. Many still hold on to old precepts of what innovation is and how it is accomplished. They constantly confuse innovation with invention, and believe innovation comes from a lone genius or, at best, from small, sequestered teams that vanish from sight and then return with big ideas.

The myth of the lone genius dies hard. To the contrary, innovation is a full-contact, team sport —exactly what T-Students were trained to play in college! It involves all the business functions, from Sales and Marketing to Operations, Customer Support, and R&D.

Where T-Employees Thrive

T-Employees thrive in a culture that allows them to work in empowered, cross-disciplinary teams, think critically and creatively about the problems presented to them, and freely express and defend their ideas. These values closely align with the components of an innovation culture.

Thus, we recommend that managers actively monitor and measure their innovation culture because T-Employees will quickly determine whether they fit into an organization or not. Without proactive management of one’s innovation culture, managers can expect to see increased turnover among T-Employees. To engender loyalty, managers must provide direct feedback and reward those who are working to solve problems across silos. The absence of a command and control management style will empower T-Employees to work above and beyond, and this empowerment will have further positive effects as new employees see how T-Employees are treated.

Tool for Managing Both Culture and Innovation

For managers hoping to get value from T-Employees, CIMS has a time-tested, reliable diagnostic tool for measuring and managing a “culture of innovation.” The VIQ (Value Innovation Quotient) is built on the premise that culture is embedded in behavioral practices that can be assessed with both quantitative and qualitative metrics. For example, Empowerment is represented by a high degree of autonomy and independence among employees. This is just one of the nine factors measured by the VIQ.

Empowerment is also typically the dimension with the lowest score from firms that have taken the VIQ. In contrast, employees of many of the firms that utilize the VIQ rank Meaningful Work as one of the highest of the nine. This difference between Empowerment and Meaningful Work indicates employees want to work on solving important problems, but they do not feel empowered to do so.  Using the VIQ, managers can recognize and address these cultural impediments to innovation by describing, explaining, predicting, and managing innovation culture.

We hope managers will recognize that hiring T-Students can bring enormous benefit to their company’s innovation skillset. However, managers must be aware that these, now T-Employees, can only flourish in an environment that supports innovation; an environment that allows T-Employees to proactively work across silos and seek feedback from stakeholders— an environment that can be measured using the VIQ.

While other tools exist to measure innovation culture, there are only a few, and of these few none are designed to focus specifically on innovation. For example, the Organizational Culture Inventory (OCI) is widely used to measure organizational culture; however, this tool is designed to measure general aspects of culture.

Instead, we recommend managers use the VIQ because it is specifically designed to measure innovation culture. For more information, see


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