Hiring and Cultivating a New Kind of Talent

Today's Problems Call for Expert Generalists, or 'Pi-Shaped' Talent

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Eduardo Braniff
Eduardo Braniff
Talent. It's what great, change-making enterprises and enterprises undertaking great change have always had in common. Today, talent could not be more vital to enterprises as they strive to become more innovative, more efficient, more dynamic and more relevant.

Among the sine qua non of talent-driven enterprises are McKinsey & Co. and IDEO. Despite specializing in different arenas -- management and design, respectively -- both companies have described their talent as "T-shaped" individuals, or people with a wide breadth of interests and a deep area of expertise. McKinsey and IDEO set the standard for generalists and experts with their "T-talent" model.

But changing, too, is the nature of talent, T-shaped or otherwise.

New talent is entering the marketplace innately programmed as multitaskers and academically trained as "multidisciplinarians." They have grown up maximizing new tools and platforms to process information, creating new media and connecting through new communication forms -- often simultaneously.

They are pursuing academic programs that integrate once separate disciplines, such as the management and strategic skills sought by McKinsey and the design skills sought by IDEO. In growing numbers, people are creating their own curricula and entering the work force with degrees in two or three different majors.

By virtue of this experience, today's talent is opting for a "portfolio" of professional experiences over a traditional career trajectory. Company loyalty and long-term, professional goal setting, once considered vital to success, are now seen as anathema to a time when the speed of change outpaces the rate of expert development. Not to mention that people are complementing their 9-to-5 office jobs with secondary and tertiary careers online and elsewhere.

The time calls for expert generalists, all-rounders or "pi-shaped" talent.

Pi, the Greek letter, describes talent that is broad in its interests and expert in two areas, if not more. As a decimal representation, pi never ends or repeats which, when used to describe talent, means no two "pi talents" are alike. And, as a circular constant, it is inherently about well-rounded talent. Though a constant mathematically, the only thing constant about "pi talent" is the rate at which their attention changes and ambitions evolve.

As enterprises face the natural rate of change, propelled by the innovation imperative and accelerated by current economic demands, their tendency is to seek out talent that is experienced in the task at hand. Talent that has 10 years' experience "in everything we already know" or "T-shaped." Expertise is valuable in all circumstances.

However, as much as enterprises and talent are changing, so, too, is the nature of the problems these parties are tasked with solving. The times call for counterintuitive team creation that might not, on the surface, guarantee an expected or familiar result. If the problem is new, so, too, should be the team solving it.

Creating teams of pi-shaped people is certainly about the relevance of their expertise to the project. But, more interesting, attention should be paid to the unique intersections created among the team's secondary expertise and interests.

How would an ad campaign benefit from a team of well-followed "tweeters" who have mastered compelling, short-form messaging?

How would a retail project benefit from the experience of an architect, who is also an avid gamer and a filmmaker, all disciplines involved in interacting in environments?

How would a brand strategy develop differently if informed by individuals who have created a following for themselves in the blogosphere, social networks and content creation?

Fundamentally, capitalizing on pi-shaped talent is to create new problem-solving dynamics and processes. The more varied the team's skills are in identifying and approaching the problem, the more unique the solutions become.

The implication of pi-shaped talent collaborating with enterprises that have staked their offer on process is worth noting. Maximizing the talents of pi employees is to let them determine the best process for the given task at hand. Retaining one's "patented" process as a starting point and ongoing touchstone is essential, but so, too, is allowing deviation from it. Whereas in the past people conformed to process, today process will conform to people.

As leaders embrace the changing face of talent, they should bear in mind the following:

1. Encourage their extracurricular projects.
It is outside the office and client demands that pi talent develops the diversity you want to capitalize on. Encourage T's to take a page out of the pi book in this regard.

2. Make process part of their responsibilities.
Given the uniqueness of pi teams, it is important that the group -- pi and T alike -- determine the process that will best allow them to collectively deliver. Provide your existing process as a road map.

3. Make explicit the team and its members' goals.
All team members will benefit by understanding each participant's motivations, both for the project and for the individuals. Pi talent will more likely state personal goals, T's corporate and client goals.

4. Change the team along the way.
Introduce new pi and T team members to challenge the process but also to lend the most relevant perspectives at the most relevant times.

5. Evaluate constantly.
Treat each project as a year's worth of work and evaluate pi talent on an ongoing basis.

6. Create talent consortia.
Provide your talent with access to the most diverse group of pi and T talent possible.

This year marks a new economy, a new job market and now a new talent model. Recognizing, cultivating and incorporating pi-shaped talent is one key strategy to helping your organization profit -- strategically, creatively and financially.

Eduardo Braniff is global insight director for Imagination, a global independent communication agency. He oversees a global team responsible for understanding the worlds of design, media, technology, communications and, above all, how people integrate these into their lives. He has led creative projects for clients including Ford, Coca-Cola, NASDAQ, Sprint and Intel.
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